anti-Star Trek

The Comforts of Dystopia

March 21st, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism

I’m currently working on a longer treatment of Four Futures, my social science fictional speculation about the possible successor systems to capitalism, in a world characterized by pervasive automation and ecological crisis. That book is slotted for Jacobin‘s series; more about that at a later date.

Four Futures was, itself, an extension of “Anti-Star Trek”, a post that still gets some love around the Internet from time to time. The core intuition of both pieces of writing was that while we live in a world that abounds in utopian potential, the realization of that potential depends on the outcome of political struggle. A rich elite that wants to preserve its privileges will do everything possible to ensure that we don’t reach a world of leisure and abundance, even if such a world is materially possible.

But one of the things I’ve struggled with, as a writer, is the tendency of my more speculative writing to mine a streak of apocalyptic quiescence on the radical left. To me, the story I’m telling is all about hope and agency: the future is here, it’s unevenly distributed, and only through struggle will we get it distributed properly. I suppose it’s no surprise, though, after decades in retreat, that some people would rather tell themselves fables of inevitable doom rather than tackling the harder problem of figuring out how we can collectively walk down the path to paradise.

So of the four futures I described, the one that I think is both the most hopeful and most interesting—the one I call “communism”—is the least discussed. Instead it’s exterminism, the mixture of ecological constraints, automation, and murderous elites, that seems to stick in peoples’ brains, with the anti-Star Trek dystopia of intellectual property rentiers running a close second.

But strip away the utopian and Marxist framework, and all you have is a grim dismissal of the possibility of egalitarian politics. You get something like this, from Noah Smith, which echoes my account of exterminism but updates it to our present drone-obsessed times. For a lot of isolated intellectual writer types, it can be perversely reassuring to think that achieving a better world is not just difficult, but actually impossible. How else to explain the appeal of Chris Hedges?

Another piece of news that recently aroused this sensibility was this Guardian post about an alleged “NASA study” predicting the “irreversible collapse” of industrial civilization. Here, via Doug Henwood, is a critique of the study itself and the lazy media that propagated it. And another Twitterer links to this, which is even more damning. In short, the study—which the original author didn’t even bother to link to—had little to do with NASA, and was a crude theoretical model based on a handful of equations. Frankly, as far as futurology goes, I think “Four Futures” was built on a far sounder scientific foundation.

What depresses me is not so much the perambulations of a crank with a Guardian blog, such people will probably be with us forever. But many people I know and like were eager to share this thinly sourced bit of nonsense around Facebook and Twitter, suggesting that it spoke to a desire for apocalyptic scenarios among ostensibly pragmatic leftists.

This fatalism is the perfect complement to the equally inane positivity that pervades bourgeois discourse, whether it’s coming in the form of self-help as dissected by Barbara Ehrenreich, or as the phony utopianism of silicon valley plutocrats. The ruling class tells us that the future is inevitably bright, while left curmudgeons reassure themselves with the conviction that it’s inevitably gloomy. We don’t win from playing this game, taking our meager emotional returns while our opponents take their payment in a much more tangible form.

The Problem of “Capital in the Twenty First Century”

March 10th, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy

Today marks the English-language publication of Thomas Piketty’s eagerly awaited Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t comment on the adequacy of its approach to the problem of capital in the twenty-first century. But I can comment on a specific problem of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” that turns out to be illuminating.

In his review of the book, Dean Baker complains that Piketty’s account is overly deterministic, largely due to an inattention to the details of institutional structures which shape the distribution of wealth and income, and which are potentially subject to change by political means. In particular, he draws attention to one of his, and my, recurring themes: intellectual property. Using drug companies as a case in point, Baker notes that this industry makes up 2 percent of GDP and 15 percent of corporate profits, based entirely on “government granted patent monopolies”.

Drug patents may be the most egregious example, but there’s plenty more where that came from. After reading Baker’s review, I headed over to Amazon, with the thought of picking up an ebook edition of Piketty’s book. There I found that the Kindle edition retails for a whopping $27.48, for a grand total of $1.45 in savings over the physical, hardcover edition.

Only copyright law and digital copy protections make this possible, of course—copying an ebook is trivial and nearly costless. And who benefits from that? Presumably some royalties accrue to Piketty and his translator, Arthur Goldhammer. Which I can’t really begrudge, although Piketty already enjoys a comfortable faculty position at the Paris School of Economics.

But the other beneficiary is the publisher, Harvard University Press, and it’s a bit harder to see how they need the money. HUP is a division of Harvard University, which, some incidental educational operations aside, is primarily an enormous investment fund presiding over $32 billion dollars in assets. Which brings us around to another of Dean Baker’s objections, which is that the unusual success of Harvard’s investments may not simply be due to the expertise of its financial managers. He proposes insider trading as another plausible (albeit unsubstantiated) explanation: “graduates of these institutions undoubtedly could [provide] their alma maters with plenty of useful investment tips.”

All of which is to say that while I laud Piketty’s support for increased taxation of income and wealth, the peculiar case of his own book illustrates Baker’s important counterpoint. It’s a point that could equally be directed at certain Marxists and other leftists, for whom all efforts at reformist politics are doomed to fail a priori: “capitalism is far more dynamic and flexible than the way Piketty presents it”, and thus we should pay close attention to “the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.”

Guards, Workers, Machines

February 17th, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism, Work

I see that a couple of my longtime interests—guard labor and the relationship between wages and productivity—have surfaced in the New York Times and the Economist, respectively.

The Times published an article by the economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev, advancing their research on what they call “guard labor”: the work of security guards, police, the armed forces, prison staff, and others whose function is chiefly “guarding stuff rather than making stuff”, in the words of another economist they quote.

Bowles and Jayadev first proposed the concept of guard labor, as far as I know, in this paper from about ten years ago. Their basic insight is that maintaining a system of unequally distributed private wealth requires a large amount of repressive labor that is not directly productive. I first drew on their idea a few years ago in my sketch of the economy of anti-Star Trek (and I should note that the economics of Star Trek has also gotten another recent treatment.) I returned to it in “Four Futures”, which also considers the increasing significance of guard labor in a society characterized by abundant and unequal wealth alongside ecological scarcity.

In their latest update, Bowles and Jayadev advance their analysis by empirically analyzing guard labor in a cross-national perspective, and relating it directly to income inequality. They find, unsurprisingly, that higher levels of inequality are strongly correlated with a stronger share of guard labor in the economy. To over-simplify only a bit, societies with a greater social distance between the rich and poor require more people to protect the haves from the have-nots. Thus Bowles and Jayadev suggest that reducing economic inequality is an important part of rolling back our increasingly militarized, carceral society.

Meanwhile, at the Economist, we have Ryan Avent (technically unattributed, according to the magazine’s annoying convention), writing about an apparently unrelated topic: the relationship among productivity, economic growth, and wage stagnation. The post is long and contains a number of interesting detours, but the basic point is simple: “productivity is often endogenous to the real wage.” What this means is that technological change in the production process isn’t something that happens independently of what’s happening to the wages of workers. Rather, high wages spur productivity growth because they encourage businesses to economize on labor. Conversely, lots of workers competing for jobs at low wages is a recipe for slow growth, because there is little incentive to use labor-saving technology when labor is so cheap.

As it happens, this is exactly what I suggested a few years ago, in response to Tyler Cowen’s theories of technological stagnation. I’ve elaborated the point, and even drawn on the mainstream economist Daron Acemoglu, who also crops up in Avent’s post. But economics writers have been remarkably resistant to the idea that wages and technology can dynamically interact like this, and the Economist post still treats it as a scandalous proposition rather than something that seems compelling and obvious on its face. Thus we find ourselves trapped in an endless, unhelpful debate about whether or not technology is some kind of independent, inevitable cause of unemployment and wage polarization.

Having examined various aspects of the problems that arise from a glut of too-cheap labor, Avent ends up very close to where I do on these issues, in particular on the value of reducing labor supply. A higher minimum wage is important, since it provides the necessary incentive to economize on labor. But it’s not sufficient, because we also need to reduce the amount of hours of work, both through shorter hours and lower labor force participation. That means something like a Universal Basic Income not tied directly to employment. Which brings us back to the same place Bowles and Jayadev end up as well: massive redistribution to tackle income inequality and share out the benefits of a highly productive economy.

Avent notes with amusing understatement that “redistribution at the scale described above would be very difficult to engineer.” It will require, in fact, pitched class struggle of no less intensity than was necessary to build the socialisms and social democracies of the 20th century. But taking that path is the only way to get to something resembling the two egalitarian endings I sketched, as part of my speculative political economy choose-your-own-adventure in “Four Futures”, which I called communism and socialism. The alternative is to continue along the path Bowles and Jayadev describe, to a society locked down by guard labor—whether that’s the rentier dystopia of pervasive intellectual property I called rentism, or the inverted global gulag of rich enclaves scattered across a world of ecological ruin, which I called exterminism.

Porno for Pirates

May 7th, 2013  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

As someone who made a certain amount of my reputation by using the Star Trek universe to illustrate the dangers of strong intellectual property law, I feel obligated to comment on the recent court decision against the entity commonly referred to as Prenda Law. The case combines copyright battles, Star Trek, and pornography—if I can slip in a picture of a cute animal, I may be able to construct the Platonic ideal of a popular Internet post.

The case, decided in the District Court for the Central District of California, concerns a group of lawyers engaged in a particularly egregious form of copyright trolling. Their strategy was to file a large number of lawsuits accusing individuals of illegally downloading a single porn video, the copyright for which was apparently assigned to one of the lawyers’ groundskeeper on the basis of a forged signature. The basis for these lawsuits was quite flimsy, but the firm had no real intention of winning the lawsuits in court. Instead, they would offer to settle—and as the court decision notes, the offer was “for a sum calculated to be just below the cost of a bare-bones defense.” This, combined with the embarrassment of being publicly linked with downloading porn, was apparently enough to extort money from a significant number of people.

The tangled organizational web woven by the trolls is shown in the image below, taken from the court decision. It won’t shock anyone who followed This American Life’s story about patent-trolling front companies. In this case, though, the strategy of obfuscation ultimately contributed to Prenda’s undoing, as the judge concluded that its only purpose was to “shield the Principals from potential liability and to give an appearance of legitimacy.”

Org chart of Prenda Law

It’s also worth noting, amid concerns over ISP monitoring of user traffic, that actually being able to correctly identify downloaders was superfluous to Prenda’s strategy. They claimed to show that their targets had used Bittorrent to download the video. Yet the judge points out that they never bothered to “conduct a sufficient investigation to determine whether that person actually downloaded enough data (or even anything at all) to produce a viewable video.” Nor did they make any effort to “conclude whether that person spoofed the IP address, is the subscriber of that IP address, or is someone else using that subscriber’s Internet access.” Why bother, when they never intended to defend their claims in court? “When faced with a determined defendant . . . they dismiss the case.”

All of this would be signficant enough just for providing an extreme example of the way copyright law can be exploited within the American legal system—what the court decision calls “the nexus of antiquated copyright laws, paralyzing social stigma, and unaffordable defense costs.” But the author of the decision, judge Otis Wright, took things to another level entirely when he chose to write a decision littered with Star Trek references, beginning with an opening quotation from Spock in Star Trek II: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

It only gets better from there, as Wright unloads his scorn on what he refers to as “the porno-trolling collective”. An analogy to the Borg begins by explaining why “resistance is futile” to the porn-trolling scheme, and several pages later notes that some other attorneys who colluded with the main culprits “were not merely assimilated; they knowingly participated in this scheme.” In his concluding remarks, Wright observes that

Though Plaintiffs boldly probe the outskirts of law, the only enterprise they resemble is RICO. The federal agency eleven decks up is familiar with their prime directive and will gladly refit them for their next voyage. The Court will refer this matter to the United States Attorney for the Central District of California.

Watching these scumbags get their comeuppance gives this story a happy ending. But as usual, the real scandal is what’s legal. There’s no happy ending for Jammie Thomas, the working class mother of four who’s still on the hook for $222,000 for the crime of sharing 24 songs on the Internet. And while bottom-feeders like Prenda get upbraided in court, high class patent trolls like Nathan Myhrvold get puffed up as brilliant innovators by Malcolm Gladwell in the pages of the New Yorker. Unfortunately, we may yet look back on Prenda Law as the real innovators, who were just a bit too audacious and a bit too far ahead of their time.

We Have Always Been Rentiers

April 22nd, 2013  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Statistics

In my periodic discussions of contemporary capitalism and its potential transition into a rentier-dominated economy, I have emphasized the point that an economy based on private property depends upon the state to define and enforce just what counts as property, and what rights come with owning that property. (The point is perhaps made most directly in this essay for The New Inquiry.) Just as capitalism required that the commons in land be enclosed and transformed into the property of individuals, so what I’ve called “rentism” requires the extension of intellectual property: the right to control the copying and modification of patterns, and not just of physical objects.

But the development of rentism entails not just a change in the laws, but in the way the economy itself is measured and defined. Since capitalism is rooted in the quantitative reduction of human action to the accumulation of money, the way in which it quantifies itself has great economic and political significance. To relate this back to my last post: much was made of the empirical and conceptual worthiness of Reinhart and Rogoff’s link between government debt and economic growth, but all such disputations presume agreement about the measurement of economic growth itself.

Which brings us to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis, and its surprisingly fascinating “Preview of the 2013 Comprehensive Revision of the National Income and Product Accounts”. The paper describes a change in the way the government represents the size of various parts of the economy, and therefore economic growth. The most significant changes are these:

Recognize expenditures by business, government, and nonprofit institutions serving households (NPISH) on research and development as fixed investment.

Recognize expenditures by business and NPISH on entertainment, literary, and other artistic originals as fixed investment.

The essential issue is whether spending on Research and Development, and on the production of creative works, should be regarded merely as an input to other production processes, or instead as an investment in the creation of a distinct value-bearing asset. The BEA report observes that “expenditures for R&D have long been recognized as having the characteristics of fixed assets—defined ownership rights, long-lasting, and repeated use and benefit in the production process”, and that therefore the BEA “recogniz[es] that the asset boundary should be expanded to include innovative activities.” Likewise, “some entertainment, literary, and other artistic originals are designed to generate mass reproductions for sale to the general public and to have a useful lifespan of more than one year.” Thus the need for “a new asset category entitled ‘intellectual property products’,” which will encompass both types of property.

What the BEA calls “expanding the asset boundary” is precisely the redefinition of the property form that I’ve written about—only now it is a statistical rather than a legal redefinition. And that change in measurement will be written backwards into the past as well as forwards into the future: national accounts going back to 1929 will be revised to account for the newly expansive view of assets.

Here the statisticians are only following a long legal trend, in which the state treats immaterial patterns as a sort of physical asset. It may be a coincidence, but the BEA’s decision to start its revisionist statistical account in the 1920’s matches the point at which U.S. copyright law became fully disconnected from its original emphasis on limited and temporary protections subordinated to social benefits. Under the Copyright Term Extension Act, creative works made in 1923 and afterwards have remained out of the public domain, perpetually maintaining them as private assets rather than public goods.

A careful reading of the BEA report shows the way in which the very statistical definitions employed in the new accounts rely upon the prior efforts of the state to promote the profitability of the intellectual property form. In its discussion of creative works, the report notes that “entertainment originals are rarely sold in an open market, so it is difficult to observe market prices . . . a common problem with measuring the value of intangible assets.” As libertarian critics like to point out, an economy based on intellectual property must be organized around monopoly rather than direct competition.

In order to measure the value of intangible assets, therefore, the BEA takes a different approach. For R&D, “BEA analyzed the relationship between investment in R&D and future profits . . . in which each period’s R&D investment contributes to the profits in later periods.” Likewise for creative works, BEA will “estimate the value of these as­sets based on the NPV [Net Present Value] of expected future royalties or other revenue obtained from these assets”.

Here we see the reciprocal operation of state power and statistical measurement. Insofar as the state collaborates with copyright holders to stamp out unauthorized copying (“piracy”), and insofar as the courts uphold stringent patent rights, the potential revenue stream that can be derived from owning IP will grow. And now that the system of national accounts has validated such revenues as a part of the value of intangible assets, the copyright and patent cartels can justly claim to be important contributors to the growth of the Gross Domestic Product.

The BEA also has interesting things to say about how their new definitions will impact different components of the overall national accounts aggregate. They note that the categories of “corporate profits” and “proprietors’ income” will increase—an accounting convention perhaps, but one that accurately reflects the constituencies that stand to benefit from the control of intellectual property. Thus the new economic order being mapped by the BEA fits in neatly with Steve Waldman’s excellent recent post about late capitalism’s “technologically-driven resource curse, coalescing into groups of insiders and outsiders and people fighting at the margins not to be left behind.”

The changes related to R&D and artistic works may be the most significant, but the other three revisions in the report are worth noting as well. One has to do with the costs associated with transferring residential fixed assets (e.g., the closing costs related to buying a house), while another has to do with the accounting applied to pension plans. Only the final one, a technical harmonization, has to do directly with wages and salaries. This is perhaps an accurate reflection of an economic elite more preoccupied with asset values than with the direct returns to wage labor.

Finally, the reception of the BEA report provides another “peril of wonkery”, related to the one I described in my last post. The Wonkblog post about the report makes some effort to acknowledge the socially constructed nature of economic statistics: “the assumptions you make in creating your benchmark economic statistics can create big swings in the reality you see.” And yet the post then moves directly on to claim that in light of the statistical revisions, “the U.S. economy is even more heavily driven by the iPad designers and George Lucases of the world—and proportionally less by the guys who assemble washing machines—than we thought.” This is no doubt how the matter will be described going forward. But the new measurement strategies are only manifestations of a choice to attribute a greater share of our material wealth to designers and directors, and that choice has more to do with class struggle than with statistics.

Robots and Liberalism

December 12th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

People know my beat by now, so everyone has been directing my attention to Paul Krugman’s recent musings on the pace of automation in the economy. He moves away from his earlier preoccupation with worker skills, and toward the possibility of “‘capital-biased technological change’, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.” He goes on to present data showing the secular decline in labor’s share of income since the 1970’s.

He then notes that his position “has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism”, but reassures us that this uncomfortable realization “shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts”. The implication of those facts, he says, are that neither the liberal nor conservative common sense has anything to say about our current predicament: “Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society” . . . won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents.”

Meanwhile we have Kevin Drum despairing that the coming decades will be “mighty grim”, as automation means that “the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work”. And we have the Financial Times publishing Izabella Kaminska arguing that “we’ve now arrived at a point where technology begins to threaten return on capital, mostly by causing the sort of abundance that depresses prices to the point where many goods have no choice but to become free.” This, of course, leads to attempts to impose artificial scarcity through new forms of property rights (with dire consequences for growth and prosperity), but I’ve written all about that elsewhere.

What I mainly find interesting is what all this interest in technology and jobless growth says about the limits of contemporary liberalism. We can all hope that Gavin Mueller’s reverie of Paul Krugman dropping LSD and becoming a Marxist will come to pass, but in the meantime his type seems to have no real answer. Nor do those of a more labor-liberal bent, like Dan Crawford at Angry Bear, who laments being called a neo-luddite and scornfully says: “As if widespread use of automated systems was automatically good for us overall”. As if a world in which we hold back technical change in order to keep everyone locked into deadening jobs is a vision that will rally the masses to liberalism.

In its more sophisticated form, this kind of politics takes the form of Ed Miliband’s “predistribution”, which Richard Seymour glosses as a belief that “rather than taxing the rich to fund welfare, the government should focus on making work pay more.” But if the structure of the modern economy is, as Krugman argues, one which depends on increasing numbers of robots and diminishing numbers of people, this project is bound to be either ineffectual or pointlessly destructive of our potential social wealth. The idea that there is something inherently superior, either politically or morally, about raising pre-tax and transfer incomes, rather than doing redistribution, is one that has never seemed to me to be especially well grounded. At times I suspect that it stems from an uncritical embrace of the historically specific white populist identity politics of the working class, and its accompanying fetish for the point of production, that I talk about here.

Not to say I have all the answers either, but here on the crazy Left we at least have some ideas. Ideas that don’t presuppose the desirability of keeping the assembly line of employment going at all costs, pumping out something that we can call “middle class jobs”. Ideas that get back to crazy notions like working time reduction and the decommodification of labor. These days, the unrealistic utopians are the nostalgics for the Fordist compromise, who see the factory worker with a high school diploma and a middle class income as the apex of human emancipation. But as Lenin said, “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself”.

The Disposition Matrix

October 24th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics

“The Disposition Matrix” sounds like a dystopian science fiction novel. And indeed it is, but unfortunately it’s being written by the American counter-terrorism bureaucracy, and rolled out as the blueprint for a future of state-sanctioned death squads.

The Washington Post prints a riveting chapter of this story, a sequel to Obama’s notorious “kill list”. We discover the existence of a “next generation targeting list” (the aforementioned matrix), a spreadsheet of doom which will be used to keep track of all the undesirables now targeted for elimination by the CIA.

The story expertly combines bureaucratic tedium with horrific violence, and it is full of bizarre and terrifying lines. “The database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the ‘disposition’ of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.” Drone assasination is now the first resort of the state.


“‘We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,’ a senior administration official said. ‘It’s a necessary part of what we do.'” Killing is ineffectual, which is why killing must remain our business forever. “Mitt Romney made it clear that he would continue the drone campaign. ‘We can’t kill our way out of this,’ he said, but added later that Obama was ‘right to up the usage’ of drone strikes and that he would do the same.” We can’t kill our way out of this, so we must keep killing. You must go on. You can’t go on. You’ll go on.

“‘We had a disposition problem,’ said a former U.S. counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix.” The problem was that there remained some people that the U.S. government was unable to kill.

Once, a man was captured off the coast of Yemen. “‘Warsame was a classic case of “What are we going to do with him?” ‘ the former counterterrorism official said. In such cases, the matrix lays out plans.” Perhaps we require “camps . . . used for ‘suspects’ whose offenses could not be proved and who could not be sentenced by ordinary process of law.”

“The proposal, which would need White House approval, reflects the [CIA]’s transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and return to its pre-Sept. 11 focus on gathering intelligence.” This will be very different from the Tonton Macoutes. There will be no rustic straw hats and denim shirts this time.

“The matrix was developed by the NCTC, under former director Michael Leiter, to augment those organizations’ separate but overlapping kill lists, officials said.” This is typical of the bloated, inefficient government bureaucracy. One day they’ll think to outsource the machinery of death entirely.

“‘The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,’ said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser. ‘You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.'” You kill them and kill them, but they just keep growing back. After a time, “Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it.”

“The approach also applies to the development of criteria for ‘signature strikes,’ which allow the CIA and JSOC to hit targets based on patterns of activity . . . even when the identities of those who would be killed is unclear.” Like Google’s search algorithm, the characteristics that will make you deserving of government assasination are obscure.

“For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.” Barack Obama truly deserved his Nobel peace prize after all; he inaugurated the most moral campaign of wide scale killing in history.

“The number of targets on the lists isn’t fixed, officials said, but fluctuates based on adjustments to criteria. Officials defended the arrangement even while acknowledging an erosion in the caliber of operatives placed in the drones’ cross hairs.” Targeted killing used to be glamorous and sophisticated, but these days it’s a bore. All the good targets are already dead.

“A senior aide to Panetta disputed this account, and said Panetta mentioned the shrinking target list during his trip to Islamabad but didn’t raise the prospect that drone strikes would end. Two former U.S. officials said the White House told Panetta to avoid even hinting at commitments the United States was not prepared to keep.” If we stop the killing, the terrorists will have won. If we say that we will stop the killing in the future, the terrorists will have won. If we hint that we might commit to stopping the killing in the future, the terrorists will have won.


It comes back, as it always does for me, to “Four Futures”. The fourth chapter of that essay is titled “Exterminism”, and it suggests the following:

Many of the rich . . . have resigned themselves to barricading themselves into their fortresses, to be protected by unmanned drones and private military contractors. Guard labor . . . reappears in an even more malevolent form, as a lucky few are employed as enforcers and protectors for the rich.

But this too, is an unstable equilibrium, for the same basic reason that buying off the masses is. So long as the immiserated hordes exist, there is the danger that it may one day become impossible to hold them at bay. Once mass labor has been rendered superfluous, a final solution lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor.

Until now, we have relied on the prison system to warehouse the unemployed and unemployable, but there just seem to be more and more of them. How long until someone like Pete Peterson demands, in the name of fiscal responsibility, that we begin liquidating these stocks of unproductive bodies?

Fortunately, the disposition matrix has nothing to do with such fears. The targets of the lists are not surplus labor, after all, we are merely terrorists.

The 3-D Printed Future and its Enemies

October 9th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy

@makerbot store

Lately, it seems like everyone is talking about 3-D printers. Until recently, these devices have been seen either as novelties or as expensive pieces of equipment suited only for industrial use. Now, however, they are quickly becoming affordable to individuals, and capable of producing a wider range of practical items. Just as the computer became a vector for pervasive file-sharing as soon as cheap PCs and internet connections were widespread, we may soon find ourselves living in a world where cheap 3-D printers allow the dissemination of designs for physical objects through the Internet.

The line between science fiction and reality is moving rapidly. Scroll through these links at BoingBoing and you’ll see 3-D printers churning out everything from guitars to dolls to keys to a prosthetic beak for a bald eagle.

Ensconced in the home, the 3-D printer is a step toward the replicator: a machine that can instantly produce any object with no input of human labor. Technologies like this are central to the vision of a post-scarcity society that I outlined in “Four Futures”. It’s a future that could be glorious or terrible, depending on the outcome of the coming political struggles over the adoption of these new technologies. As the title of a report from Public Knowledge puts it, “It will be awesome if they don’t screw it up.”

Battles over 3-D printing will be fought on two fronts, and two mechanisms of power are likely to be mobilized by the rentier elites who are threatened by these technologies: intellectual property law and the war on terror.


I wrote earlier this year (at Jacobin, the New Inquiry, and Al Jazeera), about the fight over laws like the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have given the state broad and ambiguous powers to monitor and persecute alleged copyright infringers. The intellectual property lobby is currently in retreat on this front, but the general problem of intellectual property stifling progress has not abated. Aaron Swartz, who was the victim of one of the more ludicrous recent piracy busts, is still facing multiple felony counts. Apple and Google, meanwhile, now spend more money on patent purchases and lawsuits than they do on research and development. And the next front in the war over IP is likely to center on 3-D printing.

Like the computer, the 3-D printer is a tool that can rapidly dis-intermediate a production process. Computers allowed people to turn a downloaded digital file into music or movies playing in their home, without the intermediary steps of manufacturing CDs or DVDs and distributing them to record stores. Likewise, a 3-D printer could allow you to turn a digital blueprint (such as a CAD file) into an object, without the intermediate step of manufacturing the object in a factory and shipping it to a store or warehouse. While 3-D printers aren’t going to suddenly make all of large-scale industrial capitalism obsolete, they will surely have some very disruptive effects.

The people who were affected by the previous stage of the file-sharing explosion were cultural producers (like musicians) who create new works, and the middlemen (like record companies) who made money selling physical copies of those works. These two groups have interests that are aligned at first, but are ultimately quite different. Creators find their traditional sources of income undermined, and thus face the choice of allying with the middlemen to shore up the existing regime, or else attempting to forge alternative ways of paying the people who create culture and information. But while the creators remain necessary, a lot of the middlemen are being made functionally obsolete. Their only hope is to maintain artificial monopolies through the draconian enforcement of intellectual property, and to win public support by presenting themselves as the defenders of deserving artists and creators.

This same dynamic will arise with 3D printing. Now, however, it is industrial designers who will be cast into the role of the artists and writers, while certain industrial manufacturers will be threatened with death by dis-intermediation. Designers will still be needed to create the patterns that are then fed into 3D printers, while the factories will be superfluous. Imagine a world in which you could download the blueprints for an iPhone 5, and print one out at home. Suddenly, Foxconn and the Apple Store are out of the picture—the only indispensable part of the Apple infrastructure is industrial designers like Jonny Ive, who are responsible for the putting together the sleek and attractive design of the device. The Public Knowledge report cited above predicts that “as 3D printing makes it possible to recreate physical objects, manufacturers and designers of such objects will increasingly demand ‘copyright’ protection for their functional objects.”

In the last issue of Jacobin, Colin McSwiggen admonished designers to pay attention to the fact that they “make alienated labor possible”. The idea of “design” as separate from production is tied to the rise of large scale capitalist manufacturing, when skilled craftspeople were replaced with factory workers repetitively churning out copies from an original pattern. But the order McSwiggen critiques is one which will be undermined by the dissemination of micro-fabrication technology.

3-D printing isn’t going to restore the old craft order, in which design and production are united in a single individual or workshop. What it will do instead is make some designers more like musicians, struggling to figure out how to react to consumers who are trading, remixing, and printing their creations all over the place. At the same time, it will blur the line between creation, production, and consumption, as amateurs delve into creating and repurposing design. Like musicians, professional designers will have to decide whether to scold their customers and join industrial interests in fighting for strong copyright protections on designs, or whether to look for new ways of getting paid and new ways of connecting with their fans.


The dark side of being able to print any physical object is that other people can print any physical object. It’s all well and good when people are just making clothes or auto parts, but recently there have been stories about more unsettling possibilities, like 3-D printed guns. The first of these was ultimately over-hyped, but did show that the day was at least approaching when home-printed firearms would be a reality. Then, there came a story about a 3-D printer company revoking its lease and demanding its device back after it got wind of a collective that intended to make and test a 3-D printed weapon.

This story is significant because it indicates a line of attack that will be used to restrict access to 3-D printing technologies in general. I have no particular love for the gun-enthusiast crowd. Those leftists who think access to guns is somehow useful to revolutionaries are living in the past and underestimate the physical power of the modern state, and having your own gun is more likely to lead to you getting shot with it than anything else. But guns, and other dangerous objects, will surely be used as the pretext for a much wider crackdown on the free circulation of designs and 3-D printing technology.

When the copyright cartels were still only trying to control the circulation of immaterial goods like music and software, they faced the problem that it was hard to convince people that file sharing was really hurting anyone. Notwithstanding a few lame attempts to link piracy to terrorism, the best they could do was point to the potential loss of income for some artists, and the possibility that there would be less creative work at some point in the future. These same arguments will no doubt be rolled out again, but they will be much more powerful when linked to fearmongering about DIY-printed machine guns and anthrax.

This is where the intensification of the surveillance state, throughout the Bush and Obama administrations and under the rubric of the “war on terror”, becomes important. The post-9/11 security state has gradually rendered itself permanent and disconnected itself from its original justification. We will be told that our purchases and downloads must all be monitored in order to prevent evildoers from printing arsenals in their living rooms, and it will just so happen that this same authoritarian apparatus will be used to enforce copyright claims as well. Meanwhile, the military will of course proceed to use the new technologies to facilitate their pointless wars. Readers who are interested in a preview of this dystopia of outlaw fabricators trying to outrun the police are referred to Charles Stross’s novel, Rule 34.

There really are dangers in the strange new world of 3-D printing. I’m as uneasy as anyone would be about unbalanced loners printing anthrax in their bedrooms. But we have seen all too well that the repressive state apparatus that promises to keep us safe from terror mostly manages to roll up a bunch of inept patsies while remaining unable or unwilling to stop a deranged massacre from going down now and then.

Terrorism, like drugs before it, is only a pretext for ratcheting up a repressive apparatus that will be used for other purposes. Today, we are familiar with the statistics showing that terrorism has killed 32 Americans per year since 9/11, while gun violence has killed 30,000. Soon enough we will be able to add 3-D printers to the list of phantom menaces that are trotted out to justify wiretaps, raids, and indefinite detentions.


William Gibson famously said that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. In the future, expect the copyright cartels and the national security state to team up to bring you a new announcement: the future is here, but you’re not allowed to have it.

Manufacturing Stupidity

April 17th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Work

I don’t usually write about education. I don’t have any special expertise or knowledge about it, and anyway, fellow Jacobin writers Andrew Hartman and Megan Erickson are on the case. But this story (via Slashdot) touches on some of my more typical themes.

The linked post is written by Rob Krampf, a science educator in Florida who found some serious problems when he was trying to develop practice materials for fifth grade students preparing for the state’s mandatory science test, the FCAT. This is one of those so-called “high stakes tests” which are the idol of the education reform movement and the bane of left-wing education critics, because they are used to dole out financial incentives or penalties to schools. But the trouble with these tests goes beyond the standard criticism of testing-focused education. In the test questions Krampf received from the state, many of the “wrong” answers turned out to be just as correct as the supposedly “right” ones. This led to an exchange with state authorities that should be read in its entirety, for the dark comedy if nothing else. Here, however, is a representative sample from the FCAT:

This sample question offers the following observations, and asks which is scientifically testable.

  1. The petals of red roses are softer than the petals of yellow roses.
  2. The song of a mockingbird is prettier than the song of a cardinal.
  3. Orange blossoms give off a sweeter smell than gardenia flowers.
  4. Sunflowers with larger petals attract more bees than sunflowers with smaller petals.

The document indicates that 4 is the correct answer, but answers 1 and 3 are also scientifically testable.

For answer 1, the Sunshine State Standards list texture as a scientifically testable property in the third grade (SC.3.P.8.3), fourth grade (SC.4.P.8.1), and fifth grade (SC.5.P.8.1), so even the State Standards say it is a scientifically correct answer.

For answer 3, smell is a matter of chemistry. Give a decent chemist the chemical makeup of the scent of two different flowers, and she will be able to tell you which smells sweeter without ever smelling them.

While this question has three correct answers, any student that answered 1 or 3 would be graded as getting the question wrong. Why use scientifically correct “wrong” answers instead of using responses that were actually incorrect? Surely someone on the Content Advisory Committee knew enough science to spot this problem.

I’d just add that you could probably find scientists who’d call 2 a right answer as well (survey a random sample of listeners about the prettiness of birdsongs, and voila…) This would be embarrassing enough if it were merely a sloppy oversight. But when he asked for an explanation of this bad question, Krampf received the following justification:

Christopher Harvey, the Mathematics and Science Coordinator at the Test Development Center told me:

“we need to keep in mind what level of understanding 5th graders are expected to know according to the benchmarks. We cannot assume they would receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states. Regarding #1 – While I don’t disagree with your science, the benchmarks do not address the hardness or softness of rose petals. We cannot assume that a student who receives instruction on hardness of minerals would make the connection to other materials. The Content Advisory committee felt that students would know what flowers were and would view this statement as subjective. Similarly with option 3, students are not going to know what a gas chromatograph is or how it works. How a gas chromatograph works is far beyond a 5th grade understanding and is not covered by the benchmarks. As you stated most Science Supervisors felt that student would not know this property was scientifically testable. The Content Advisory Committee also felt that 5th graders would view this statement as subjective. We cannot assume that student saw a TV show or read an article.”

Here we have the ideology of testing reduced to its fatuous essence. The ritual memorization and regurgitation of a decreed list of “facts” is the paramount value, superseding all other goals of education. We simply “cannot assume” that a student might “receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states”, that they could “make the connection to other materials”, or that they “saw a TV show or read an article.” Not only does the FCAT not assume these things, it actively penalizes them. The test is not merely indifferent but actually hostile to any understanding or learning that happens outside the parameters of the testing regime.

Krampf’s commenters continue to pile on; a reading teacher reports tests full of “bad grammar, incorrect spellings, and questions that simply made no sense”. You might ask what sort of system could produce the kind of pathological rationalization for these errors that I quoted above. Another commenter refers to “a culture of bureaucratic ass-coverage”, which lends credence to David Graeber’s claim, which I discussed the other day, that much of the apparatus of late capitalism has degenerated into a sclerotic order dominated by “political, administrative, and marketing imperatives”.

A slightly different question, though, is what sort of society can tolerate this kind of dysfunctional education system? I’m not a rigorous structural functionalist—that is, I don’t think every social phenomenon can be explained in terms of the role it plays in optimally reproducing the social order. But I’m enough of one to think that as a rule, the behaviors that are encouraged by a society are those that are useful to it, or at least not actively hostile to it. Capitalism is unusually hospitable to sociopathy, for example, because the sociopath approaches the ideal-typical personification of capital itself. Conversely, capitalism is an unfriendly place for those of us who tend to prefer time over money, because this is in tension with capital’s need for ceaseless expansion.

One might think that capitalism requires workers who know how to do and make things, and that therefore our elites would not complacently accept the emergence of Florida’s regime of enforced stupidity through testing. There is a narrative of cultural decline to this effect, still available in both liberal and conservative packaging. According to this lament, America neglects the proper education of its populace at its peril, as we allow ourselves to be eclipsed and out-competed by better-educated, more ambitious hordes from abroad. This is a reassuring argument, in a way, because it presumes broad agreement about the purpose of education: to produce a society full of practically skilled workers, capable of at least enough critical thought to do their jobs.

Critique from the left tends to spend its time condemning models of education that are narrowly focused on the instrumental task of creating a new generation of obedient and productive workers. Megan Erickson’s essay, for instance, worries that under the influence of self-styled reformers, “social studies and music classes are commonly replaced by . . . glorified vocational training”. But a farce like the Florida science exams fails even at this narrow task. A population raised to take the FCAT will be ill-prepared to be either engaged citizens or productive workers. Can the ruling class really be so inept, so incapable of producing the proletariat it requires?

An alternative explanation is the one I’ve explored in my writings on the disappearance of human labor from production—most notably, in “Four Futures”. My analysis of the political economy (recently summarized and seconded by Matt Yglesias) is that we are experiencing a slow transition from a capitalist order in which accumulation is based on the exploitation of labor, into a “rentist” order based on rents accruing to land or intellectual property. Such a society is not, in my view, functionally compatible with the ideals of broadly-distributed critical thinking or practical work skills.

In a rentist order, an increasing percentage of the population becomes superfluous as labor—but they are still necessary as consumers. For reasons of ideological legitimacy and political control, the fiction that everyone must “work” is maintained, but work itself must increasingly be pointless make-work. What kind of populace is suited to this habit of passive consumption and workday drudgery? One that accepts nonsensical and arbitrary rules—whether they are the rules of endless work or endless consumption. Students who learn to answer the questions the testing bureaucracy wants answered, irrespective of their relationship to scientific knowledge or logic, will be well trained to live in this world.

Krampf’s description of the Florida science testing dystopia is a grim vindication of something I wrote in an old post about the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy. I think of that post as kind of a lost chapter in my “rentism” series—I wrote it just after “Anti-Star Trek” and intended it as a follow-up, but it’s been read by orders of magnitude fewer people. I hope you’ll go read that post, but my general critique was that Judge portrayed stupidity as being inherent and genetic, even though the logic of his own movie suggested that stupidity is socially produced.

And mindless, bureaucratized testing is exactly the sort of system fit to produce the citizens of our future idiocracy. The mentality required to correctly answer the questions on the FCAT is a mentality suited to a world of pervasive marketing and advertising, in which reality is reduced to a postmodern nominalism of disconnected slogans. The students who unthinkingly repeat the assertion that smell and texture are not scientifically testable will grow up to confidently inform you that they water their crops with Brawndo—it’s got electrolytes, after all, they’re what plants crave!

Intellectual Property and the Progressive Bourgeoisie

January 18th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy

Today is a day of protest against SOPA and PROTECT IP, two proposed pieces of legislation which are being promoted as necessary responses to copyright infringement, and which threaten to impose serious restrictions on Internet communication. Big sites like Wikipedia and Reddit—and small but dear to my heart sites like the Marxists Internet Archive—have gone dark to register their opposition to the legislation. Stopping legislation like this is very important to me, because the continual escalation of intellectual property enforcement is the foundation of the incipient rentier dystopia I’ve explored in much of my previous writing. But since I’m not important enough to make much of an impression by shutting down, I’ll instead provide something topical to read until those sites return.

While SOPA and PROTECT IP aren’t dead, they look significantly less threatening now than they did a couple of months ago. Some of the worst provisions of the bills have been removed or softened in response to organized opposition, and SOPA (the House version of the bill) seems to be dead for the time being. The fight is not over, however, and the current version of the bill still has a lot of disturbing implications. See here for a detailed explanation. One of the worst provisions, for people who care about censorship on the Internet, is one that would allow Internet service providers to block users as long as they can claim to be acting “in good faith” to combat piracy. This is likely to give rise to a situation where risk-averse companies pre-emptively block users in response to the claims of the big copyright owners, even where the claims are baseless. Worse, this provision creates an opening for governments or private actors to censor political expression under the guise of enforcing copyright. It’s not hard to imagine the governments of New York or Oakland issuing bogus takedown notices for images of police brutality against Occupiers; indeed, this isn’t entirely a hypothetical scenario, as Google has already reported receiving precisely this kind of questionable takedown order from a law enforcement agency.

The resistance to SOPA and PROTECT IP has been stronger and more effective than I expected, which is encouraging. And the coalitions that have lined up on each side of the issue cut across the normal partisan divisions in American politics, as explained in this article by Zach Carter and Ryan Grim. But while it’s tempting to read the backlash as an example of grassroots mass movements fighting back the corporate power of the copyright cartels, it’s at least equally important that these bills have exposed a deep division between two factions of big Capital—and forced Leftists and liberals to decide which faction they side with.

In the House, SOPA was introduced by right-wing Republican Lamar Smith, a member of the Tea Party caucus. But among the bill’s cosponsors are a number of liberal Democrats—including John Conyers, Jr., lately a fan of liberals due to his full employment jobs bill. On the other side, an equally motley crew of representatives quickly came out against SOPA and PROTECT-IP, with Democrats like Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo standing alongside Ron Paul and even Michelle Bachman.

It’s tempting to see this as reflecting some kind of libertarian-statist divide that cuts across typical partisan cleavages. But it’s more likely that the surprising coalitions in congress reflect an equally unusual division among the corporate interests that move policy in Washington. A number of big corporations and industry groups have come out strongly against SOPA and PROTECT-IP, including Facebook, Google, and the Consumer Electronics Association. That helps explain why Lofgren—whose district covers an area around San Jose, California—has taken the lead in opposing the bills in congress. And it’s easier to see how Conyers found himself on the same side as the Motion Picture Association of America, Pfizer, and Mastercard, once you know that the legislation has also received support from the AFL-CIO.

The presence of labor union support may tempt some liberals into supporting this legislation (and not for accelerationist reasons). They could nod along to journalist Robert Levine, who calls technology companies “digital parasites” bent on demolishing the economic foundations of media creation. Conyers has promoted the laws, implausibly, by claiming that they will “protect jobs” in creative industries. This is a canny move, since working writers and artists are a sympathetic group when contrasted with big media companies parasitically making money by copying their work. But that’s not really what this fight is about—rather, it’s a struggle between two different fractions of Capital.

The basic divide at work here is between those capitalists that make money by selling access to content, and those that make money by controlling the content distribution networks. For content sellers like the music business, extremely harsh intellectual property laws are desirable because they create the artificial scarcity upon which their whole business model depends. Companies like Facebook and Google, in contrast, still mostly make their money by controlling the platforms on which people distribute various kinds of media, and selling access to their user base to advertisers. For them, looser copyright laws don’t pose a threat to profits, and in fact they facilitate the business model: by increasing the amount of copying and sharing, they increase the popularity of the distribution networks, which in turn makes them more valuable to advertisers.

One of the hallmarks of Marxism (at least my version of it) is that it regards capitalist development not as an unambiguous evil but as a simultaneously progressive and exploitative phenomenon. In the traditional view, capitalism develops the forces of production which are the precondition for socialism, but eventually becomes an impediment to both economic rationality and human well-being. This implies that while the capitalist mode of production is a historically limited form that must ultimately be superseded, there are situations in which capitalism—or some aspect of capitalism—has a progressive aspect that is preferable to those reactionary forces that would prefer to maintain the status quo. Hence it’s worth asking whether things like SOPA/PROTECT-IP amount to “bailouts of dying industries” “at the expense of the future”.

To be sure, trying to pick and choose between progressive and reactionary factions of capital can get you into some squirrelly situations. In the Communist movement—particularly among Maoists—it was once common to distinguish between a reactionary “comprador” bourgeoisie and a progressive “national” bourgeoisie in peripheral countries. While the compradors were dependent on and politically allied with international capital, it was argued, the national bourgeoisie and the working class shared an interest in resisting imperialist control and developing an independent national economy. This analysis was sometimes used to justify Communist support for bourgeois governments on the grounds that they were based on the national bourgeoisie rather than the comprador elite. In practice, this led to some unfortunate political errors, with Communists issuing apologetics for various unappealing regimes in the post-colonial world.

But despite these pitfalls, picking sides between capitalists is sometimes unavoidable if you want to avoid the self-serving and moralistic cop-out of dogmatic third campism. Some might argue that the network capitalists are worse than the more old-fashioned content capitalists. The old media model at least pays some wages to creators, after all. This the vibe I get, for example from Mr. Teacup, whose posts often critique the radical potential of peer-to-peer and open source production from an apparently anti-capitalist direction. This post, for example (which I discussed here), argues that the whole idea of voluntary, non-waged production networks is actually a key part of the ideology of neo-liberalism.

But in the context of the current debate over intellectual property, I would argue it is the capitalists who control the networks and distribution channels—like Google and Facebook—who represent the more progressive segment of the bourgeoisie. Which is not to say that they’re either admirable companies or, in the long run, friends of the Left. It’s certainly true that they are, in one sense, parasites: they profit from the labor and creativity of users who make, remix, upload and share content for free. But their great virtue, in contrast to the pro-intellectual property side, is that they at least accept the existence of a cultural milieu based on sharing and access to knowledge, rather than trying to restrict it by tightly controlling access to information. As the French economist Yann Moulier-Boutang says in a recent interview, Google poses a threat to “the united front maintained by the intellectual property advocates” because “they have built an economic model that meshes with this free-use era.” He goes on to say:

Google represents a huge step forward. It forced the gaps wide open and caused a crisis, or at least an awkward predicament, for those supporting the proprietary system. This is why I believe it is strategically sound to create an alliance with Google to dismantle old, archaic models, even though I feel we simultaneously need to be ready to fight it, because Google’s goal is to make money, and the company could, in any case, be bought out by Chinese pension funds or anyone else at any point, which could easily lead to problems, especially around the issue of privacy, since Google uses personal data.

The idea of an “alliance with Google” might sound fanciful or silly. But in practice, things like the SOPA fight force everyone to be in an alliance with Google or an alliance with the MPAA. This is the sort of thing I think about when I see people making critiques—often sensible ones—of the exploitative social network capitalists, and then going on to suggest that we should actively dismantle emerging commons and systems of peer production—that “rather than advancing the bounds of the beachhead, we should turn back and destroy it—not just the new forms of peer production and social enterprises that are emerging, but the traditional system of charitable giving and volunteering and the ideal subjectivity of sharing, altruism and cooperation that supports both”.

People making this critique may believe that they are staking out a left-wing alternative to a nefarious new form of postmodern capitalism. But this critique strikes me as an un-dialectical, abstract negation of capitalism, which fails to recognize the way a post-capitalist future can, and must, develop out of capitalism. And given the current balance of class forces, I worry that rejections of peer production and the commons mostly serve to shore up the ideological legitimacy of the most reactionary and ossified parts of capitalism—the same elements that make up the vanguard of rentism.