Friday, February 13, 2015

Facing the Plague: Economic and Political Inequality


     
[Note:  This essay was first published last December in Teknokultura, Vol 11, no 3 (2014)
http://teknokultura.net/index.php/tk/article/view/246
I reprint it here for the convenience of those who read items on my blog.]



FACING THE PLAGUE:

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL INEQUALITY

By: Langdon Winner

Department of Science and Technology Studies,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180


Hopes for the future of democracy must now confront a basic power shift that has emerged since the early 1970s and is now reaching its advanced stages.   This shift in control over key decisions and policies is clearly visible in my own country, the U.S.A., but is evident in many other nations as well.  At stake is a seemingly ineluctable transfer of power from national governments to the transnational firms; from elected officials to directors of large banks, hedge funds, and global firms; from citizens to plutocrats; from democracy to corporatocracy.

Recognition of this shift is by no means new.  In recent years it has been thoroughly described and theorized in books on globalization, the rise of the information society and creation of the new economy.  It is, for example, a key theme in Manuel Castells books on the “network society” and in Sheldon Wolin’s masterful study, Democracy Incorporated (Wolin, 2010).

Especially remarkable today are the numerous, troubling manifestations of power shift as it achieves maturity, specific signs of the obvious erosion at the very heart of democracy within nations, including the U.S.A., a country that has long believed it was prosperous enough and powerful enough to maintain the integrity of its fundamental principles and institutions against any unfriendly incursions.

An awareness of undeniable symptoms of this malady have made it necessary for me to change how I teach politics to university undergraduates.  For many years the topic was perfectly straightforward, predictable and even a little dull.  I offered a class entitled “American Politics and Elections” that included such topics as how our three branches of government work and interact, how a bill becomes a law in Congress, and how elections in a pluralist democracy operate.  It was a basic, well-worn overview right out of the standard political science textbooks.

But about five years ago, it dawned on me that I could no longer honestly teach the standard narrative because the political system had changed fundamentally and was no longer working as advertised.  How could I go on teaching the old, outdated myths as if nothing had changed?  For example, if you look at how “a bill becomes a law” in our House of Representatives at present, you would have to admit that there are very few instances when that actually happens.   During the Obama years (with few exceptions) the Congress has refused to pass laws and policies expected to have any positive outcomes for American society.  Legislation is blocked, totally obstructed by intensely ideological “conservative” politicians as those on the other side watch helplessly dumbfounded.  Everyone in Washington, D.C. recognizes this gridlock, but few own up to its deeper implications.  The flimsy excuse -- “But both sides do it” – is about as far as most observers are willing to venture.  Indeed, the prevalence of “both sider” explanations are a tell tale sign that political discourse and journalism have simply relinquished any willingness to probe the basic causes of widely noticed maladies in American politics and, indeed, in American society as a whole.

After several years of observing the paralysis, the public has begun to take notice.  Recent opinion polls show that Congress has become a total laughing stock with approval ratings that hover around 5%.  The nominal leader of Congress, “the Speaker” John Boehner, proudly announced that his success will not depend on how many laws he passes, but how many laws are repealed.  For this reason when I teach introductory politics these days, I must explain the void: how a bill does not become a law.

A similar need arises in helping students understand the current status of the three branches of government in our Constitution – the executive, judicial and legislative branches.   It is now apparent that two of the three have been radically transformed
their workings.  The legislative branch is now more accurately called the “obstructive” branch, since it obstructs any constructive legislation aimed at addressing national problems of any significance.   In similar ways, the judicial branch – especially the Supreme Court – now functions as a group of nine unaccountable kings and queens who usually uphold whatever the corporations and wealthy elites demand.   Thus, the three branches of government, I explain in my classroom (with only a small touch of irony), are now the executive, the obstructive and the monarchical.

Beyond this comedy of labels, of course, lie some gravely serious issues.  Perhaps the most shocking surprise flowing directly from the power shift at the heart of American politics right now – a surprise that has recently erupted with extraordinary force – the enormous gap in the inequality of income, wealth and political power that has arisen in the U.S.A.

Most Americans are simply befuddled as they learn the sad facts about extreme inequality and their implications, for the situation is completely at odds with the most basic American beliefs, including what has traditionally been known as “The American Dream” (Smith, 2012) (Barlett & Steele,  2012).  From its beginning, the the nation has supposedly been committed to equality as its founding principle.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…,” Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in The Declaration of Independence.  Perhaps the greatest work of political theory about the USA, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, could more accurately have been named “Equality in America,” for that was what the French philosopher and statesmen observed when he visited the young republic in the 1830s.  In every town and village, what Tocqueville noticed were ordinary American people busily realizing dreams of equality as the nation expanded westward (de Tocqueville, 2003).

Of course, there were always notable exceptions to this grand ideal.  America’s native peoples, African slaves, the indentured servants of the Republic’s early years, women until the mid 20th century, and African-Americans during the decades of “Jim Crow” segregation were all excluded from the dynamics of equality.  (These are stories for another occasion.)  Suffice it to say the idea of equality and of equal rights is central to America’s understanding of itself as a very special and virtuous place – “American exceptionalism” as some observers (even now) like to proclaim.

Unfortunately, during the past four decades or so there has arisen a remarkable turnaround in the legend of equality in the USA, the appearance of trends long documented by social scientists, but ones ignored by the media and most politicians.  The lid finally blew off the story with the eruption of the Occupy Wall Street in the autumn of 2011 when “the gap” between the 1% and 99% became headline news.

Some of the basic facts are these:

Since the early 1970s there has been an astonishing shift in the distribution of wealth and income in the United States.

The real wages of working class and middle-class people have essentially flattened, while the incomes of the top 1% to 2% have soared.

The differential can be seen in the comparison of the incomes of chief executive officers (CEOs) in banks and corporations to the earnings of ordinary workers.  In 1978 CEOs earned 29 times more
than the average employee.

 In 2012 they took home roughly 203 times more than workers overall (Mishel & Sabadish, 2013) In fact, one recent analysis shows that CEOs today earn 311 times the pay of the average American worker (Paywatch, 2013), while some estimates of today’s inequality in the U.S. soar even higher.

During several decades marked by steady economic growth and steadily rising productivity, workers have captured very little of the gains.   Today’s exaggerated levels of inequality in wealth in the U.S. are comparable to those of ancient Rome.  The magnitude of inequality of income is worse than any other industrialized country, even worse than developing countries such as Pakistan and the Ivory Coast.  A recent study of the statistics revealed that the top 0.1% of the U.S. population commands wealth equal to 90% of the rest of the populace (Saez & Zucman, 2014) (Monaghan, 2014).  And the economic crevasse continues to expand with dizzying rapidity.

While many America citizens are vaguely aware of this unhappy situation in contemporary social life, very few comprehend the sheer size of the gap that separates the excessively rich from everyone else (Utrend, 2014).  What is truly unsettling to citizens, politicians and academics alike is that what have long been understood as conventional remedies for economic malaise available to the nation are no longer functioning.  Most notable is the lovely conviction that economic growth in itself will boost the fortunes of the working class and middle class Americans.  In fact, there has been considerable expansion of the economy as a whole and growth in the productivity of workers in recent times, much of it due to computerization.  But since the middle 1970s real wages have flattened or even declined for roughly 60% of the population.  Trends of this kind are intensifying.  Since the economic crash of 2008, 95% of the income gains in the USA during the so-called “recovery” have gone to the top 1%.  (Saez, 2012)

In fact, according to recent opinion polls, most Americans do not believe there has even been a “recovery.” Recovery, you say?  What recovery?  Where?  When?  The fact that Wall Street is prospering and corporate profits are skyrocketing means very little or ordinary people whose salaries have stalled or are among the long term unemployed and are still struggling to make ends meet.  Happy talk from the Obama administration about many months of “job creation” and “economic growth” have done little assuage the very real fears of the middle class and working poor that “the economy” no longer functions for them.

Perhaps even more unnerving sign of the effect of inequality is growing skepticism about the cherished belief that America is a “land of opportunity.”  Social surveys indicate that in recent times there has been almost no upward economic mobility.  If you are born in a particular socio-economic stratum, you are almost certainly destined to stay right there.  Vanishingly few people are able to rise to higher levels (DeParle, 2012).  Deeply entrenched inherited wealth has become a dominant, enduring feature of the social order.

Taken together these surprises about people's real economic conditions point to a predicament often noted in today's political discussions -- the collapse of the aforementioned “American Dream" --  the  celebrated belief that if a person worked hard and played by the rules, one could prosper, buy a home, give one's children a good education, and retire comfortably in one's later years.  Along with evidence of stagnant or even declining wages there is undeniable evidence that other important features of the dream are rapidly fading as well.  Funds for public education are being slashed, several hundred thousands teachers have lost their jobs since the 2008 crash and college education is affordable only to the wealthy or by those by willing to take on crushing burdens of debt.  Buying a house is possible for fewer and fewer people.  Old age pensions have largely been eliminated.  People expect to work many more years than in previous generations.  

Recognizing trends of this kind, our politicians and journalists have begun talking about a crisis.  They ask, “Whatever became of The American Dream?”  As the great comedian George Carlin once observed: “"The owners of this country know the truth: It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."  (Carlin, 2005).

When I ask my students about their visions of life’s possibilities they often choose to avoid the trends glaring at them in the statistics.  Their eyes still shine brightly as they intone the lovely myth that America is “the land of opportunity.”  But they have no solid answer to my question:  “What in the world does opportunity mean these days?”  A common move is to embrace fantasies of becoming the next great billionaire and joining the 0.01%.  One of their favorite examples is Elon Musk, a South African/Canadian who, as a young man, came to the U.S. and co-founded Pay Pal, got fabulously rich and went on the found the Tesla automobile company and a firm that builds space rockets.  Here, students explain, is grand proof of what’s still possible in America.   When I ask what’s the sample size for the likelihood of success on that scale, they admit it’s one in 30 million people or so.  But they remain confident that they themselves will be the next winners in the great entrepreneurial lottery.  They plan to overcome inequality (and pay off their staggering student loans) by becoming fabulously rich in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street.  I smile appreciatively and wish them “Good luck!”

For those who look more closely at this predicament, it becomes clear that the phenomenon of inequality is not simply a matter of wealth and poverty.  A widely read survey of cross-national data shows that societies like the USA that exhibit wide gaps in income inequality are more likely to experience a range of social and psychological ills – higher rates of mental illness, suicide, depression, illegal drug use, lack of trust, and other maladies.  In their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Strong, demographers Kate Picket and Richard Wilkinson and suggest that inequality is kind of collective disease, a pervasive malady that afflicts members of society as a whole – both the poor and the rich – a disease of the body politic itself (Pickett and Wilkinson, 2010).

Attempts to explain the origins of pathological levels of inequality we see today are hotly debated among economists, sociologists and public-policy analysts.  In the list of causes one finds the influence of free trade agreements, corporate outsourcing of jobs, the financial and organizational features of globalization, decades long rates of return on capital as compared to ordinary economic growth, the lingering effects of racial discrimination, and numerous other factors.  The debate has recently been galvanized by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a magisterial study of decades of international economic data, an attempt to explain the reappearance of staggering inequalities reminiscent of the Belle Époque in Europe  (Gilded Age in the U.S.A.) of the late 19th century (Picketty, T., 2014).

One element of the story that, although probably not the most important in the overall situation, is one that attracted the attention of scholars and policy makers in the late 1970s.  I first took note of this body of research during a time in which I moved from conventional political science to the field of science and technology studies (STS). A hotly contested issue back then was that of automation, computerization and what was often called “the future of work.”

It was perfectly clear to industrial workers, corporate managers, and academics in the emerging field of STS, that digital technologies were involved in a wide range of changes in the material and social settings of industrial production.  Significant examples of developments underway were the creation of the regimes of containerized cargo in international shipping as well the creation of new generations of machines in factory production, including computer numerically controlled machine tools, CNCs.  Conferences, seminars and public debates in universities and other venues pondered the innovations on the horizon with an emphasis upon how intelligent, caring people could participate in planning for and shaping the changes underway.  No one knew exactly how these events would unfold, but a great many observers understood that sweeping transformations in technologies of industrial production would surely affect the fabric of social life.

Thoughtful participants in the debate wondered about whether or not there should be an overall "industrial policy," a set of plans cooperatively fashioned by leaders in government, the corporations, and labor unions to guide the future of technological development and the qualities of working life in the decades ahead.  As the “post-industrial” economy took shape, of course, intentions of that kind were never realized.  The vogue of neoliberalism with its faith in the exquisite beneficence of the market transfixed leaders in the corporations and political parties.  Within this magical mindset no American “industrial policy” was ever devised, no democratically formulated plan for the future of factory work, no strategy for managing technological change for the greater good.

An important study within this field of issues was the research of historian David F. Noble on the design, development and introduction of computer numerically controlled machine tools during the 1940s through the 1970s.  Noble’s research pointed to a struggle between two distinctly different conceptions of industrial innovation within projects the sought to connect factory lathes used to mill metal parts with the power of computers.   One model – the record playback machine -- left much of the initiative and creativity on the shop floor in the hands of skilled unionized workers.  In the shaping of metal parts, such machines were guided by the hands of conventional factory workers, their motions electronically recorded for playback on the cutting of production runs of metal parts.

An alternative model, computer numerically controlled machine tools, CNC, favored by the Air Force corporations like General Electric, was a design that relied upon white collar engineers and managers off the shop floor to do the intricate computer programming that would guide the actions of the machines.

In his book Forces of Production, Noble details the history of these developments, using historical records to test various hypotheses about why CNC was eventually victorious while the record playback machine more favorable to ordinary workers was rejected (Noble,  1984).   What, he asks, was decisive in the outcome?  Was it the quest for precision, efficiency, flexibility, or even profitability for the corporation?

Noble argues that if one looks carefully, none of the favored explanations holds up very well.   What was decisive in the end was the quest for managerial control over the production process.  The managers at GE wanted a technological design and mode of implementation that favored their own power over that of unionized workers.  Thus, they chose the CNC design with all that entailed and rejected the material design and social relations of record playback.
Directly in question was the role of the participation and creativity of blue-collar working people, the survival of their jobs, their incomes, the labor unions, and ultimately their very way of life.

Within the great confrontations during the 1960s into the late 1970s, the workers lost and the US military and its corporate contractors won.  At stake were momentous choices about which machines would be designed and implemented and where control would be located – a crucial dimension of what today see as a sweeping power shift.

Recently, sociologists and economists have been going back over the data about productivity and technological change to see which patterns can help explain an increasingly troubled state of affairs in the USA – the decline of manufacturing and the demise of the kinds of work that supported a prosperous working class in the U.S. during the thirty years or so after World War II.  One retrospective of this kind is a study by Tali Kristal published in the American Sociological Review, "The Capitalist Machine: Computerization, Workers' Power and the Decline in Labor's Share within U.S. Industries” (Kristal, 2014), a lengthy, sophisticated, quantitative analysis that teases out of the data the various circumstances that account for widening inequality within the US populace.

Kristal notes that since the late 1970s there has been a “decline in labor’s share of national income” of 6%.  Much of this is “due to a large decline” (as much as 14%) “in construction, manufacturing and transportation combined.”  She notes that earlier, during the 1950s and 1960s, labor’s share of income had steadily increased.  However, “Since then, labor’s share has declined in all rich countries, as labor unions and labor-affiliated political parties fell on lean times and workers were left without a strong collective voice to confront employers.”  Looking at the U.S. data she concludes “that computer-based technologies are not class neutral but embody essential characteristics that favor capitalists (and high-skilled workers), while eroding most rank-and-file workers bargaining power.”

To be more precise, Kristal writes, “computerization has reduced labor’s share indirectly through its role in reducing unionization.”  This echoes David Noble's position argued in the late 1970s and early 1980s in his study of numerically controlled machine tools.  In his book, Progress Without People, Noble argued that this was not an isolated case, but one representative of a wide range of computerized applications in industry (Noble, 1995).  The corporate formula was: Remove control from rank-and-file workers.  The CNC model of new machine tools was merely part of an ongoing technologically embodied attack upon the power of labor unions aimed at liquidating entire categories of skilled factory work.  

Of course, the whole story here has many additional, noteworthy dimensions, including surveillance of workers on the job, strategies of divide and conquer especially in payment schedules, firing union activists, and a good deal more.  But, as Kristal’s research makes clear, the influence of particular kinds of technological initiatives strongly shaped the broader outcomes.

Noble’s study emphasized the question: Can factory workers’ skills be replicated by computer programs used to run production equipment?  Today the equivalent question can be stated more broadly:  Can all or most forms of productive activity be embodied within the countless, rapidly proliferating algorithms that do useful work with little or no human presence?   In studies such as Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy  by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, the  classic debate about technology and the future of work and income is reborn, this time on steroids. (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011).   Books and articles in this genre, often written by people in schools of management and by Silicon Valley gurus, openly speculate that in the decades just ahead countless millions of people will be thrown out of work by a flood new artificially intelligent algorithms in every conceivable field of human activity.  Will the ongoing ruminations and proposals in this genre be more fruitful than the “future of work” debates of the 1970s?  (Don’t count on it.)

Another feature of the power shift evident in spiraling levels of economic inequality in America is a distressing trend in the nation’s political life, one slowly beginning to dawn on the citizenry -- the recognition that those who now derive their riches from international finance and global regimes of production and service no longer much care about vitality and coherence of democratic society.  The evidence mounts that wealthy corporations and business moguls are often busily at work seeking to undermine the integrity of democratic institutions and vitality of civic culture (McChesney and Nichols, 2013).

Ominous indicators here include the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the U.S. by wealthy individuals and their campaign organizations to dominate the outcome of elections.  Their explicit goal is that of placing in office people who will lower taxes on the rich, eliminate barriers of regulation on corporate activity, dismantle government programs that help ordinary people, and reduce the share of income that everyday workers can expect to receive.   Because the enormous amounts of money spent by wealthy individuals and organizations is largely secret (“dark money”), it is difficult for citizens to know exactly what is happening in elections, much less in public policy making.  But the facts dribble out bit by bit.  For example, two of America's most powerful oligarchs -- the Koch brothers – Charles and David Koch -- spent more than $400 million on the 2012 elections (Gold, 2014).  During the same period the network of moneyed interests organized Karl Rove spent hundreds of millions as well.  In this vein, a long list of millionaires and billionaires are involved in flagrant efforts to undermine the choice of government officials and processes by which pubic policies are made.  A series of recent Supreme Court decisions, the notorious “Citizens United” judgment in particular, have ratified such bald-faced varieties of corruption and extortion as constitutionally protected “free speech” available to corporations defined now defined as “persons” (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 2010).

To a great extent influence of this kind has simply absorbed one of our two political parties, the Republican Party, a once reputable  organization that now serves as a kind of hollow shell for priorities of America's increasingly open and aggressive corporatocracy.   Within elections at the level of our fifty states, forces of this kind are now engaged in campaigns of neo-Jim Crow voter suppression, “gerrymandering” (controlling the shape of electoral district boundaries), instituting a variety of measures that make it difficult for their opponents to vote at all.  This amounts to an increasingly open, explicitly shameless declaration of war on the most elemental expression of democracy – the vote.

Although seldom stated as such, the underlying goal of these machinations is to eliminate the role of government as a positive force for recognizing and solving important problems that face American society.  The idea that a democratically elected government can be and ought to be an active, creative problem-solving institution is now directly under attack.  During the years of Obama’s presidency this has largely been achieved.  After his first two years during which there were a few modest reforms in government policies, Obama’s opponents have blocked every significant reform he has proposed.  His presidency has been reduced to a sequence of flowery speeches with no consequences for legislation or public policy (Pierce, 2013).

An increasingly tangible, visible consequence of this situation is that “the world’s richest nation” is simply no longer engaged in plans or projects to address the country’s most urgent needs.  Even simple matters about which one might expect an easy consensus – rebuilding crumbling roads, repairing decaying bridges, replacing outmoded airports, revitalizing the public schools, etc. – are left unattended.   This is readily apparent to anyone who travels to the USA from foreign, still ambitious countries – China for example – that are constructing new public facilities at a rapid clip.   Signs of torpor and inaction in the U.S. at present are positively breathtaking.

By the same token the country is not building new schools, not launching programs in job creation and certainly not responding in any serious way to the need to address the emergencies of climate change.  While the government still funds scientific research, levels of spending in that category have been frozen.

Evidence of this kind reveals the power shift in stark detail.  A yawning vacuum in public priorities and the exercise of democratic government points to a ruling elite that has simply ceased to care about the U.S. populace as a whole.  Justified by bombastic talk about growing debt and deficits and excessive government spending, the standard nostrums involve cutting taxes, eliminating government regulations and slashing programs that offer resources to the working poor: food stamps, higher minimum wages, unemployment insurance, job training, social security, and so forth.

In their recent, meticulous, data driven study, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page demonstrate what most careful observers of the American system already understood: elected officials pay almost exclusive attention to the priorities of society’s most wealthy segment, very little heed to the expressed wants and needs of the great mass of citizens (Gilens and Page, 2014).   As the authors note, “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”   At the article’s conclusion, Gilens and Page reflect upon what their data has revealed and lament that “if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threated.”

It is no mystery why the wealthy economic and political elites – the 1% as Occupy Wall Street called them –would favor measures that consolidate their power.  But, you may be asking, isn’t it true that there are tens of millions of everyday people in the middle class and even among the working poor who regularly vote for the policies that favor today’s conservative oligarchy?
 
Yes, in fact, a fairly large segment of the American people is beguiled by an ideology of so-called “freedom” that justifies the kinds of market measures the oligarchs prefer.  Beyond that, a great many even be seem to be aware that, in actual practice, the term “market” identifies ways that large business firms are shipping their jobs to China, Vietnam and elsewhere and devastating their standard of living.   But how can one explain a situation in which of 30% or more of the voting populace supports corporate interests and elects politicians that work to undermine the wellbeing of everyday citizens?

In my view, the answer can be found in the power of resentment.  It’s increasingly clear that people who are not wealthy come to be persuaded that government is simply in the business of taking their money and giving it to the "others" -- giving it to the underserving poor, those lazy louts in other neighborhoods (Frank, 2004).   A cleverly crafted, intricately coded language of “dog whistle politics” evokes feelings of that kind-- diatribes about “welfare queens,” “young bucks,” the “culture of inner city males,” and so forth – strongly suggesting that the “others” are unworthy black and brown people or immigrants from foreign countries (Hanley-López, 2014).  This is a topic Americans do not like to discuss explicitly in public:  How race and racial discrimination are very much a part of distribution of power in the country both historically and in the present moment as well.
 
How is it that so many people in the US whose own fortunes are visibly sinking nevertheless repeatedly vote for the interests of billionaires and a well-organized corporatocracy?   The basic mind set appears to be:  Precisely because I realize that my own prospects are sinking, I will do my best to make sure that the government will not spend and tax dollars to help anybody else, especially those undeserving “others.”  A mentality of this kind has been spectacularly on display in recent election, especially the “off year,” non-presidential elections of 2010 and 2014 in which “conservative” Republicans were notably successful at the polls.

This is a remarkably different attitude from that of European social democracy or American New Deal liberalism in which a majority agreed: "We're all in this together.  Let's pool our resources and move forward."  That was the prevailing view in the USA during the middle of the twentieth century – a view of hope, solidarity and  national community.  Alas, sentiments of that kind have pretty much evaporated within today’s mainstream political discourse and media coverage.  The one exception is occasional mobilization for war, currently “the war on terror,” including the attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and other battles in the Middle East, e.g., the offensive against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

Much of the American populace today – a great many older, white, working class and middle class voters have moved from the mentality of hope, solidarity and national community – a mentality that many of them formerly embraced -- to a mood of rigid, embittered resentment heightened by waves of fear – fears of an Ebola outbreak, of imagined waves of immigrants flooding the nation’s borders and the fear-of-the week fanned by reactionary politicians and “pundits” on cable TV.  This makes them natural allies with the wealthy ruling oligarchs who have now rather openly and unabashedly written off much of the U.S. p0pulace altogether.

Recently, attitudes of this kind have erupted within the very mainstream of American public life.  During the 2012 presidential campaign candidate Mitt Romney gave a talk, secretly recorded by a waiter at a funding raising event, in which Romney let the cat out of the bag, arguing that about half the country’s voters,  — 47%, “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. …. My job not to worry about those people.  I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."  (Corn, 2103)

From this point of view the nation’s population is divided into two opposing segments: “The Makers and The Takers”.  As argued by corporatist elites as well as the long-standing extremist conservative faction re-branded as “The Tea Party,” the message is in effect:  We’re fed up with half the American people and we’re not giving them another dime of “our money.”

Sentiments of this sort reflect circumstances in which the vitality of the nation state in steering the economy and responding to social needs has yielded to priorities of transnational, intricately networked, increasingly voracious 21st century capitalism.  As this transformation continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that many of the traditional practices, institutions and modes of communication in national politics suffer from a profound paralysis and derangement.

One symptom of the derangement is evident in the decay of mainstream political discourse -- the discourse of our politicians as well as communication formats that prevail in our mass media, a crippled discourse that blocks an effort to imagine fruitful strategies of action.  A regrettable instance took shape in 2013-2014 as President Barack Obama, an intelligent, caring, obviously competent man – began to talk about the scourge of inequality in occasional public comments.   In the weeks leading up to his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama seemed to be getting ready to tackle inequality forcefully, head on.  His speeches emphasized the gravity of the problem of inequality how it was eating away at the nation's soul and its very future.  Many of his supporters expected that Obama would soon propose strong policy measures to reverse this trend.

But when Obama’s opportunity to speak to the nation finally arrived, any mention of the lethal collective disease of inequality had somehow vanished, replaced by Obama’s vague happy talk about how America was still a wonderful land of opportunity (Obama, 2014).   A great many people listened to the talk and said to themselves: What!  Please, Mr. President, the model of our society that you are talking about is the very one that is rapidly collapsing before our very eyes.   You’ve recently admitted as much yourself.  Why is it that we cannot we come together to talk about these matters in, open, honest, decisive terms?

  Along with the other problems I’ve mentioned, a crucial problem is that America’s capacities of political speech are increasingly vacuous, irrational and absurd, out of touch with anything even remotely resembling reality.  As reflected in the widely watched Fox News Channel, a 24 hour a day of well produced, colorful, generally hate-filled commentaries on the news, and non-stop right wing talk shows on hundreds of AM radio stations, there is little desire to discuss the pressing issues of our time (Brock & Rabin-Havt, 2012).   Instead, Fox News propagates a series of largely imaginary scandals.  The current set includes what happened during the chaotic the events at Benghazi, the claim that Obama used the government’s tax office to attack right wing political groups, and the bungled introduction of the nation’s new health care plan.

Thus, Fox News channel’s exclusive message about government in Washington is the drumbeat – scandal! scandal! scandal!– even when rumors supposedly revealing the scandal have, for the most part, been thoroughly discredited.

As Manuel Castell’s writings of the 1990s argued (Castells, 1997) one sign of power shift and the weakening of the grasp of national governments is an obsession with pseudo-events, what some observers today call “anti-news” (Engehardt, 2014).  Because government officials can no longer perform the positive duties of office and because government is no longer a focused, resourceful problem-solving entity, the void in public life is filled with the latest sex gossip or reports about the misappropriation of public funds.  Stories of this kind fill the television screen twenty-four hours a day, making it seem as if issues of great importance are being presented to a well-informed public.  What is actually happening, of course, is that the public is being fed a steady diet of info-trash.

Looking at the predicament from a wider standpoint, it seems that the U.S.A. has met roughly the same fate as its political opponent in the Cold War, the Soviet Union (now Russia).  Both have shed the high ground of political principle that supposedly inspired their epic struggles for power – socialism for one country, freedom and democracy for the other -- only to collapse into rough, raw money hungry oligarchies ruling over increasingly dispirited populations.
So it goes for would-be empires.

The successful strategy of political capture engineered by the billionaire Koch brothers and their compadres in the top 0.1% can now be easily summarized.  If one funds enough policy think tanks, buys enough radio stations, owns enough cable television channels, endows enough university chairs, purchases enough election attack ads, pays for the favors of enough politicians, bankrolls for enough voter suppression laws, and employs enough lapdog pundits spewing right wing blather twenty-four hours a day, enough to dumb down political speech and most people into distraction, despair and passivity — then one has essentially bought a whole nation.  From the billionaire’s perspective, the total cost of the campaign was relatively cheap.  As the wipeout victory of the right wing in the 2014 elections made clear, the success of this oligarchical onslaught now looks less like a "challenge for American democracy" than the culmination of a slow moving coup d’etat (Democracy Now, 2014).

The situations I’ve described here defy any easy solution.  Beneficial policies would certainly include raising taxes on the wealthy, greatly increasing the minimum wage, providing free education for all citizens from kindergarten through college, giving poor families the real resources they would need to realize the “opportunity” that our politicians cynically proclaim in their speeches.  A clear, hopeful sign would be that massive numbers of people, especially young people, begin to recognize that the game is rigged -- that society is now systematically unequal, unjust, undemocratic, and unable to chart a reasonable future for them –, people who announce their vocal, active resistance to an economic and political order that now works only for the very rich.

A response of that kind began to emerge in the autumn of 2011 in the Occupy Wall Street movement and similar Occupy demonstrations across the United States.  This uprising called attention to the glaring gap between the wealthy 1% and the rest of the populace, many of whom are suffering severe decline in their incomes and life chances.

While the Occupy movement generated extensive lists of demands, it did not announce any specific set of goals or anoint a telegenic leader, a situation that made it difficult for the corporate media and our deeply bought off politicians to embrace its perfectly clear, urgent message.  Asking for widespread debate on a previously taboo subject – glaring conditions of inequality in America – Occupy refused to elevate any particular celebrity as its spokesperson.  Within their encampments in public parks and general assemblies, participants openly debated the most basic questions.  What is the problem here?  What can be done?

After a period in which the authorities allowed the demonstrations to continue, there was finally a brutal, nationwide crackdown.  Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reveal a coordinated attack planned by the F.B.I., Department of Homeland Security, local police, large banks, and several universities (Wolf, 2012).  

Scattered pieces of the Occupy movement still function online as well as in focused political initiatives such as the formation of a watchdog group to influence new regulations in the Securities and Exchange Commission and a program that raises funds to buy up mortgages homes subject to foreclosure.  At present there are Occupy-like demonstrations in the “Moral Monday” movement in North Carolina and other parts of the south, demanding an end to voter suppression laws and an end to ongoing attacks on women’s rights.

In sum, we live in a period of history in which the maladies of inequality have repeatedly surfaced, only to be swept under the rug; a time in which crucial “elections” have been reduced to mere “auctions;” a turning point in which the traditional workings of democracy have been replaced by pungent, thinly disguised forms of oligarchy and corporatocracy.  In this dire situation, the open, intelligent, resourceful resistance of a mass populace -- expressed in a variety of ingenious projects -- is the best course of action and, perhaps, the only pathway left to us.




References
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dream.  New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Brock, D. & Rabin-Havt, A. (2012).   The fox effect: How Roger Ailes turned a network into a propaganda machine.   New York, NY:
Random House.

Carlin, G. (2005).  The American dream (excerpt from Carlin’s video:
Life is worth losing).  Retrieved October 8, 2014 from YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acLW1vFO-2Q

Castells, M. (1997).  The power of identity: The information age:
Economy, society, and culture volume II.  New York, NY: Wiley.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  Decided January 21,
2010.  Retrieved October 9, 2014 from http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/08-205.ZS.html

Corn, D. (2013).   Mitt Romney's incredible 47-percent denial:
 "Actually, I Didn't Say That".  Retrieved October 9, 2014 from http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/07/mitt-romney-47-percent-denial

Democracy Now (2014).  Sen. Bernie Sanders: the U.S. is on verge of
becoming an oligarchy.  Retrieved November 6, 2014 from
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DeParle, J. (2012).  Harder for Americans to rise from lower rungs.
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de Toqueville, A.  (2003).  Democracy in America (Penguin classics).
Krammic, I. editor, Bevan, G. translator.   New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

Englehardt, T. (2014).  Ending the world the human way.  Retrieved
October 9, 2014 from http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175801/tomgram%3A_engelhardt,_the_end_of_history/.

Frank, T. (2004).  What’s the matter with Kansas?: How
conservatives won the heart of America.  New York, NY: Henry Holts & Co.

Gilens, M. & Page, B.I. (2014).  Testing theories of American politics:
Elites, interest groups and average citizens. Perspectives on politics 12 (03),  564-581.

Gold, M.  (2014).  Koch-backed political network, built to shield donors,  raised $400 million in 2012.  Retrieved October 9, 2014 from
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Hanley López, I. (2014).  Dog whistle politics: How coded racial appeals have reinvented racism and wrecked the middle class. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kristal, T.  (2013).  The capitalist machine: Computerization, workers’
power, and the decline in labor’s share within U.S. industries.   American sociological review 78(3), 361-389.

McChesney and Nichols (2013).  Dollarocracy: How the money and media election complex is destroying America.  New York, NY: Nation Books.

Mishel, L., & Sabadish, N.  (2013).  CEO pay in 2012 was
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Monaghan, A. (2014)  US wealth inequality – top 0.1% worth as
much as the bottom 90%.  Retrieved November 14, 2014 from
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Obama, B. H. (2014).  President Barack Obama’s state of the union address.  Retrieved October 9, 2014 from
http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/28/president-barack-obamas-state-union-address

Paywatch (2014).   Executive paywatch: High-paid CEOs and the
 low-wage economy.  Retrieved October 9, 2014 from
http://www.aflcio.org/Corporate-Watch/Paywatch-2014

Pickett, K. & Wilkinson, R. (2010).  The spirit level: Why greater
equality makes societies stronger. London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Pierce, C.P. (2013).   The end of Obama’s illusions.  Retrieved October
9, 2014 from http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/president-obamas-illusions-040913
Saez, E. (2012).  Striking it richer:The evolution of top incomes in the
United States (updated with 2012 preliminary estimates)   Retrieved October 8, 2014, from http://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf

Saez, E. & Zuckman, G. (2014).  Wealth inequality in the United
States since 1913: Evidence from capitalized income tax data.  Working paper 20615, National Bureau of Economic Research
Retrieved November 14, 2014 from
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Utrend (2014).   9 out of 10 Americans are completely unaware of
this mind-blowing fact.  Retrieved November 14, 2014 from
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Smith, H. (2012).  Who stole the American dream?    New York, NY:
Random House.

Wolf, N. (2012) .  Revealed: How the FBI coordinated the crackdown
on Occupy.  Retrieved October 9, 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/29/fbi-coordinated-crackdown-occupy.

Wolin, S.S.  (2010).  Democracy incorporated: Managed democracy
 and the specter of inverted totalitarianism.  Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Congressional Inquiries into the Origins & Consequences of the War in Iraq


Complete Text of all U.S. Congressional Hearings on the 

Origins and Consequences of the Iraq War from 2003 to present:


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Friday, December 26, 2014

The ideology of "innovation" -- interview with Langdon Winner

Here's an interview that Nick Ishmael-Perkins did with me last summer.  Nick edited the piece for its first publication in SciDevNet, the fine web site he runs on "Bringing together science and development through original news and analysis."  

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Langdon Winner calls himself an “innovation critic”. The political theorist based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, United States, thinks that most people talk of innovation using the word uncritically and buying into the ideology that change is always a good thing. Winner wants to challenge that assumption.


He spoke about this in August in a keynote speech at the International Conference for Integration of Science, Technology and Society, hosted by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon (4-8 August 2014). After the eventSciDev.Net caught up with him to ask about how misuse of the word innovation impacts international development. Among other things, he says Bill Gates’ framing of innovation as the only solution to global challenges, such as global warming, risks missing easier and quicker answers.

You have described innovation as a ‘god term’ — what do you mean by that?

In every generation there are certain concepts — like ‘revolution’, ‘frontier’ and ‘progress’ that change over time. I think the god term ‘progress’ has worn out. This is welcome, largely because its metaphysical character seems to promise universal benefits from science and technology. For many reasons this is difficult for many people to endorse now.

There are currently two terms that people establish attachments to: innovation and sustainability. People interpret innovation as coming up with a new use of science, a new unfolding of technological creativity. You could start a new company, generate some income, benefit your nation. It’s become a focus of aspiration and longing. And it’s one of the terms in our time that is widely and uncritically used.

Do you think it’s destined to go the way of the other ‘god terms’?

Not in the short term because it’s now achieving its high tide. It’s the jewel in the crown of the economic and social philosophy of neoliberalism that emphasises action in the market and leads to a fascination with entrepreneurship. Innovation doesn’t have the broad sweeping claims of progress. It's the idea that if you are innovative you are likely to get rich, maybe people around you will benefit, and that will somehow trickle down. The market is the motivating force. I think that fascination is going to continue for decades.

If you were going to make a critique of innovation, where would you start?

I have several lines of criticism. The first is summed up in what I describe as ‘the gadget folks’. You come up with some nifty device, like the iPad. These tend to be high-end consumer products that are seen as sources of renewal. Innovation comes from the Latin word ‘innovare’, which means to renew, and in this case the positive revitalising force literally comes out of a little device.

People associate innovation with high-end products intended for wealthy consumers or global corporations that realise hopes and dreams at that level. In many ways this is nothing new. It’s the same basic strategy used in marketing in the 1930s. It says: by purchasing this toaster or refrigerator you are going to improve your life and help the economy grow, but it will also give you the sense that as a consumer you are casting in your fate with the modern. You are driving off into the future with your beautiful new car, television set and so on.

I think products and accomplishments that are identified as innovative today have much the same character. There are stories in the newspapers with a strong emotional attachment to the new. So that is one of the points of criticism.

What are the other lines of critique?

One is about a foolish enthusiasm for anything new. But more serious criticisms relate to a common ideological position found in business schools, some categories of engineering, and certainly in Silicon Valley. This is around the notion of disruptive innovation that goes back to the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who wrote about ‘creative destruction’.

His idea became the founding principle of innovation. This is what is good about capitalism – it is endlessly innovative. It means that old sources, institutions, practices, and configurations of apparatus are destroyed, and new and better ones arise.

So today we have creative destruction and this is what is glorious and hopeful about the modern economy. In the last 20 years or so, this idea has been pushed rather aggressively in new directions, especially in business schools. And there is one figure in particular, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, who has been a leading proponent of creative destruction. Here the idea is that through evolution, particularly of digital technology, it is possible to find the old institutions, practices, and complex arrangements that produced and distributed things of value, and deliberately target them for disruption so that something new can appear in its place.

My criticism about this is the rather disrespectful and destructive focus on rushing into established domains of human activity and saying “this has been around a long time, it needs to be disrupted and something new put in its place”.

There are many professions, including medicine, journalism and teaching where crazy schemes are packaged as innovations. And because you are just an old-fashioned teacher with a teaching plan who has spent the past 20 years trying to find creative ways to engage kids — well, that has no credit because we now have tablets and standardised tests and metrics that show how well things are going. So there is a kind of tyranny of the new.

The tyranny of the new is a nice phrase, but would it not be fair to say that much innovation is driven by the desire to improve?

I call this benign innovation. Very often these are changes proposed within traditions of knowledge, skill and practice that don’t seek to destroy the tradition but to add something new. That something may be quite revelatory and doesn’t seek to replace but builds on what went before.

One example is the never-ending quest of musician Miles Davis to modify jazz substantially to make new things possible. So he moved from be-bop to cool jazz to orchestral jazz, and then back to hard bop and then fusion jazz.

In 2010 Bill Gates spoke of the need to ‘innovate to zero’, meaning that we need to create new technologies to achieve zero carbon emissions. Do you think that is problematic?

One can identify and track useful innovations to address inequality and poverty. The use of cell phones in developing countries is a good example.

But the tyranny of the new, expressed as ‘innovation’, produces a disposition to say — as Gates did in his ‘Innovating to Zero’ TEDTalk — that we need astonishing breakthroughs developed over several decades, and then and only then can we address carbon emissions.

This becomes a strategy of evasion and delay. We know fairly well, if we have the resolve, how to substantially cut carbon emissions right now. It doesn’t require much new knowledge. It could be done, for example, by imposing a stiff carbon tax or reducing speed limits from 65MPH to 45MPH — you would immediately get reductions.

So my argument is that our primary need is for planning and the resolve to act with what we already know, and to get on with it today. Whereas Bill Gates is saying: if we have these innovations over a period of four or five decades then geniuses like me from Seattle will lead us to a better world. To me this is not only a strategy of delay but self-congratulation and self-aggrandisement.

Researching innovations in this way is misdirected energy at a time when the world needs to get busy: much of the knowledge and equipment required is already at hand. We need to be poking fun at this idea. I don’t know anybody who is an innovation critic. I think there probably needs to be more than just me.

So you are criticising an ideology rather than all innovation. How might this critique inform global development?

There is a centre at Stanford where they say: “what about these poor people in the South, let’s have some innovation for development”. They have programmes in Africa and they send out their students with solar cookers.

But the problem with that, as the anthropologist Arturo Escobar points out, is that it has a kind of missionary quality. Once it was the Bible that would change your life for the better, and now you are bringing the great new technology. The problem with this is that is discounts whatever local knowledge there might be.

This missionary stance comes with  a tendency to broadcast, rather than to listen to local people.

I think it would be good to have more careful reflection on what developing countries need. When I talk to my students, I say: “you shouldn’t start designing something until you have done at least several months getting to know the people, the situation and the real needs, rather than helicoptering in and plopping down some innovative device.”

You have also been critical of the term Anthropocene, the idea that we are living in a new epoch where human activities define ecosystems. It’s an idea that could shape development planning over the next few decades. Why do you think we need to be wary?  

It’s the idea that you can name geological epochs according to some identifiable characteristic. The people who proposed the Anthropocene say humanity is responsible for the significant changes of the past centuries and changes in the future. But naming this geological period after humanity is kind of deterministic — “this is what humans have done”. And it is self-exulting — “look at our grand role in the history of the cosmos”.

But if you look at what is being projected, a better name might be Thanatopocene, after Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. It appears that instead of a grand exultation and transcendence of humanity, we are at a death spiral. So why exult ourselves with concepts like Anthropocene? I find its self-congratulatory power fantasy highly suspicious, at the very point where we ought to be looking at the good evidence that challenges the way of life that’s been built up over the last three centuries.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Power Fantasies at the End of Modernity






The talk below was given at the Teach-In on Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth, October 25-26, 2014 in The Great Hall of The Cooper Union, New York City.  The spoken version included slides and video of contemporary power fantasies in action, illustrations that were botched in the execution, alas.  This revision has been substantially rewritten in its last half to present the themes and questions in text alone.

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Power Fantasies at the End of Modernity

By: Langdon Winner


As I ponder the issues that this conference has addressed, I wonder why there aren’t masses of people in the streets of every town and city demanding basic change in ways our civilization operates.   Alas, what we see instead is a widespread mood of passivity and inaction often bordering on despair.

While there are many possible explanations for the torpor that surrounds us, I’ll focus briefly on just one.  My guess is that people are having a devil of a time getting used to an increasingly widespread perception: The Future has been cancelled.

Well, you’re probably saying, that’s just absurd.  Surely there will always be a future.  Our clocks keep steadily ticking as we move along the line from past to present to future.

But that is not “The Future” I’m thinking about. 

The Future that has almost certainly been cancelled, one that is thoroughly defunct, is a period of history imagined and partly constructed during the 20th century – “The Future” offered by a collection of ambitious modernists, techno-triumphalists, utopian visionaries, urban planners, industrial designers, Madison Avenue advertisers, and others who projected a better world just over the horizon.

All of us have been fed a steady diet of this “Future” over the years, for example the futures depicted in science fiction from the 1902 movie “A Trip to the Moon” to the recent blockbuster, “Interstellar.”  The skyscrapers, airplanes, rocket ships, robots, sleek and shiny cities, time machines, space stations, and the like depicted the apparatus of tomorrow, of widely shared prosperity, of excitement with the new, of personal wellbeing.  The basic idea of generations of modernists and futurists has been that if you built it, humanity would move in and flourish.   By moving from a dreary paleo-industrial past into a technology-rich future, the world would be vastly improved, ennobled and uplifted. 

Yes, it should be noted, much of science fiction writing and movies dramatized (as stories must) what might go wrong if even the most hopeful visions were fully realized.  But at the level of social planning and promotion, “The Future” was projected as uniformly favorable for humanity as a whole.

Schemes of this kind were exquisitely detailed in a steady stream of architectural drawings, urban plans, science fiction novels and movies, Worlds Fairs, advertising and marketing campaigns in the United States, Europe and around the globe for several decades.  Some of these visions were, one can say, socially progressive, for example, the reformist designs of early Bauhaus modernism that sought to provide agreeable architectures, tools and appliances for everyday working people.  But much of the standard treatment was narcissistic fantasy, presented in ways that left audiences amused and delighted with images of personal helicopters, automated factories, appliance filled homes, energy too cheap to meter, robot servants, and the like.

It seems to me that the basic but often unstated theme here was that ordinary, everyday people of modest means would be emancipated and empowered by participating in “Modernity.” That was, for example, the explicit promise of an ongoing sequence of Worlds Fairs, the one in New York in 1939, for instance.   In the minds of its planners, a society mired in The Great Depression could bootstrap its way to prosperity and by adopting all the new vehicles, household gadgets, super highways, and electrical gear on the drawing boards.   The “Futurama” ride, designed by Normal Bel Geddes, offered the crowds a comfortable flyover of the spectacular landscape of “Tomorrow.”  At another exhibit, adults and children could feel the power by interacting with Electro, the gigantic metal (but entirely fake) talking robot.

Notions of this sort were strongly favored by industrial corporations of the period along with the teams of designers, advertisers and marketers they employed.  One popular format    was that of streamlining, its smooth surfaces embossed on everything from locomotives to toasters from the late 1930s through the 1950s.  Evidently, you needed a streamlined toaster or vacuum cleaner in case you encountered unusual wind turbulence in your suburban home.

Crucial in campaigns of this kind was the conviction that by purchasing and using a new car, washing machine, radio or television, consumers would become full participants in and, in fact, citizens of a world based upon science and technology.
The explicit sales pitch in countless advertising campaigns was the promise of personal power to be gained by joining the Modern World.

A succession of new historical periods or “ages” (or “centuries”) embodied supposed transformations of this sort – the machine age, automobile age, air age, radio age, atomic age, television age, space age, computer age, information age, personal computer age, biotechnology age, nanotechnology age, etc. -- each one heralded in a stream of books, magazine article and movies.  Alas, an unfortunate feature of these “ages” was that they grew old rather quickly, soon to be forgotten, replaced by the next great techno-contender just over the horizon.   

While there are still strong boosters for nuclear power even today, nobody talks about coming of the Atomic Age any more and for obvious reasons.  The words “Chernobyl” and “Fukushima” come to mind.  Similarly, there is no longer any mention about the glorious arrival of “The Space Age.”  Once the U.S. had flown its astronauts to the Moon, a notable victory in the Cold War standoff between the U.S.A. and U.S.S. R., there was little public enthusiasm for spending money on space rockets, space stations, or manned missions to distant planets.

Eventually, incessant proclamation of one visionary “Future” after another began to seem rather like an elaborated con game in which the public was the rube.  The point of exhaustion seems to have arrived with the approach of the year 2000 when one might have expected a fresh batch of futures to come rolling out.  But that didn’t happen, at least not to any great extent.  Much of the chatter that accompanied the approach of the “new millennium” centered upon worries about a “Y2K bug,” a technical glitch that seemed to threaten all the world’s computers and communications systems.

For better or worse, the extravagant futurism of earlier decades is by now thoroughly exhausted.  There are for example, no plans for any new World’s Fairs to show us the new gadgets of tomorrow.   Although planning continues on ambitious metroplexes like that in Dubai, their construction  has less to do with modernist hopes for universal human improvement than the risible vanities of a few dozen billionaires.  And while there are still dewy-eyed dreams of trans-humanism, the “singularity” and of massively robotized society, prophecies of this generation are little more that pet schemes of isolated technophiles hoping to attract funding from the Silicon Valley nouveau riche.

Taking note of the demise of genuine technological utopias of yesteryear, Neil Degrasse Tyson, eloquent spokesman for the accomplishments of science and technology, recently launched a TV mini-series lamenting the fact that “We have stopped dreaming.”  By this he meant that Americans now seem incapable of the visionary Space Age enthusiasms like those that followed Sputnik.  Thus, Tyson argued, the U.S. has gradually defunded NASA and no longer seems willing to recruit, inspire and educate a new generation of space scientists and engineers. 

Well, what has happened to the visionary enthusiasms of decades gone by?  

The answer is fairly clear.  When people today, especially Americans, think seriously about times to come they typically avoid idle speculation about a New Space Age or any heroic World of Tomorrow, but instead attend to a set of obvious, immediate, urgent, challenging, often unhappy realities.  Among these are:

Global climate crisis and its highly visible consequences;

The end of the era of cheap fossil fuels;

Ocean acidification;

The rapid decline of world wildlife populations;

Huge and growing inequalities of wealth, income and political power;  
Destruction of well-paying jobs;  

Demise of the middle class, etc.

In brief, my argument is that what came to be known as
“The Future” -- the technology saturated tomorrow of twentieth century utopian visions -- has already been cancelled and that in down-to-earth, practical terms a great many people fully understand this is the case and are prepared to face the situation squarely.  Some of the most intelligent voices of this kind have spoken – creatively and persuasively -- at this gathering.

But, as the old adage has it, dreams die hard.   Despite what the best of our knowledge tells us about climate change, environmental crises, the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels, the increasingly oligarchic  character of our “economy” and “democracy,” there remain within the most common representations of the world and its possibilities, a collection of increasingly exaggerated, absurd residues of “The Future” from the recent past.   As one might expect, the basic vision still derives from the massive sales campaigns that enticed consumers/citizens with illusions of empowerment, with participation in power itself.  But the message has shifted its focus.  Sorry, folks, it’s no longer possible to offer you decent jobs at high wages; to offer comfortable, affordable apartments in clear, sleek urban wonderlands; to offer cheap, speedy transportation around the globe even for those of modest means; to offer a wonderfully favorable relationship between Nature and Artifice that uplifts and dignifies the Earth and its species.  No, alas, all of that is now beyond our reach.  But what we still have on offer is a never-ending, multi-faceted array of power fantasies that will delight and beguile you, perhaps even more thoroughly than in our earlier versions.

A comprehensive list of categories within the production of today’s power fantasies would be a lengthy catalogue indeed.  It would include much of what passes for political communication, product advertising, national security propaganda, entertainment, sports, fashion, social media, and even education in our time.

One could begin with the exotic power fantasies that carried the United States into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 attack.  This would surely include the spectacular video of “Shock and Awe” during the bombardment of Baghdad in 2003, broadcast in prime time for an audience promised that the war would be short, cheap and easy.  All of those colorful bombs, deafening blasts, carefully scripted rockets suggested that victory was at hand, that “we will be greeted as liberators.”  Feel the power!

In much the same mode came the fabulous “Mission Accomplished” episode, a TV reality show produced shortly after the attack on Iraq in which President George W. Bush, dressed in Air Force gear with a noticeable codpiece, landed in a fighter jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, greeted by an enthusiastic group of military stand ins, to proclaim that “the United States and its allies have prevailed.”  Feel the power!

As the conflict continues (now more than a decade along) an enduring, highly marketable genre of combat fantasies combines images of warfare – battlefield shootouts, fiery explosions, cruise missile launches, drone aircraft strikes, and the like – within television news segments, Hollywood films and, most notably, the first person shooter video games that are now the most profitable and fastest growing segment of the entertainment industry.  Here the hideous realities of war blend seamlessly with ghastly on screen imaginaries that occupy much of the leisure time of the world’s youth, especially young men and boys.  Aware of the indelible attraction that violent video and computer games have for their target generation, the Pentagon now uses video games at all stages of their soldiers’ careers – to recruit them into the “service,” to train them for combat in foreign lands, and finally as therapy to help the troops recover from post-traumatic stress disorder when they return home. 

Evidence that everyday Americans are completely enthralled by the vicarious experience of watching and hearing explosions, planes and cars moving at dangerously vertiginous speeds, high velocity crashes, and mega-force collisions of all kinds is evident in the daily fare of advertising, feature films, television serials, and two of the nation’s most popular sports – NASCAR racing and NFL football.  As news slowly leaks out about the long term brain damage caused to thousands of high school, college and professional football players by repeated bashing and crashing on the field, the nation ponders (but seems eager to reject) the possibility that the game will have to be modified to make it less lethal to body and brain.

Certainly the most significant “innovation” in recent decades that has helped spawn the riotous spread of power fantasies within our central institutions and troubled ways of living is the exquisite perfection of Computer Graphic Imagery – CGI –
within every corner of the new digital realm.  Where earlier modes for the production of fake imagery were clunky and far too costly, today’s methods of computer programming make them easy to fashion and replicate.  What this means is that the expensive, risky, or destructive realities of warfare, hand-to-hand combat, space travel, and other ambitious undertakings can be conveniently sold to today’s consumers as CGI marvels on the screen. 

Exactly the same “big magic” depicts speed and explosive power has become standard coin of the realm in advertising, especially in television ads for automobiles where CGI helps cars appear to “fly” from place to place.   In fact, it may be that the most thoroughly satisfying and marketable experiences of the adventures of today’s technological civilization are likely those realized within CGI and nowhere else.  The most widely engaging, personally fulfilling accomplishments of the nation’s space program were not those of, say, the Apollo moon missions or even of today’s robot vehicles scratching around on Mars, but rather the CGI filled extravaganzas of Hollywood films and TV series such as “Avatar” and “Battlestar Galactica.” By the same token, the most gratifying representations America’s otherwise forlorn military encounters in recent years are those fought everyday on Xbox, Play Station in homes and dorm rooms across the nation.  Feel the Power!

For those averse to the sheer violence that characterizes much of this domain, there is another focus of technology-centered fantasies that has an irresistible allure.  At long last our civilization has designed a splendid, affordable little implement that anybody can hold in one hand, a gadget that combines telephone, camera, texting, video screen, video recorder, and GPS, along with countless thousand of “apps” that enable a person to read the daily news, handle one’s social media contacts, schedule one’s appointments, monitor one’s diet and exercise, guide one’s zen meditation routines, etc.  It is, of course, the iPhone or, alternately, the smart phone – what many consider the signature accomplishment of the 21st century.   Surely (we tell ourselves), no emperor, king, or pope has ever commanded such magnificent power.  And because (we confidently imagine) every-man and every-woman now has this device at his/her fingertips, a more perfect democracy must be just around the corner.   Thus, we happily gaze at the little black mirror, seldom looking up to notice the troubling realities on every side.  

Oh oh.  I’d like to offer you a little more help on these matters, but, damn, my Android is ringing.

Never mind….