🌹 Meritocracy, UBI, and tech company ethics

Tech/left newsletter - March 17

A weekly newsletter on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley from a socialist perspective. Please forward to anyone who might be interested.

Fragments round-up

  • Corn: the source of all value? (day 69): What does it mean to say 'labour is the source of all value'? Why does Marx promote the labour theory of value, when a 'corn theory of value' would be just as mathematically valid?

  • Just tell me what to do (day 70): Sometimes I don't know if I should be prepping for the collapse, fighting to avert it, or just giving up because nothing I do will matter anyway.

  • The unfortunate reality behind meritocracy (day 71): A collection of responses to the elite college admissions scandals.

  • Capitalism only ever claims its successes (day 72): An illustrated guide to the proper reaction to tragic news from various parts of the world.

  • Is UBI the answer? (day 73): The UBI proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang is responding to a very different question from what the left is asking.

  • How do you convince someone to resist? (day 74): In 'The Man in the High Castle', one of the characters, John Smith, went from fighting the Nazis to becoming a high-ranking Nazi official.

  • Enterprise AI: We're hiring! (day 75): San Francisco is filled with billboards advertising little more than the idea of working at a tech startup.

Recommended content

(Mostly podcasts, because I took a road trip to LA and took the opportunity to catch up on left podcasts. I also listened to an episode of the Joe Rogan podcast featuring Andrew Yang, which was enlightening if extremely aggravating at times. More on that topic coming soon.)

  • 🎙The Dig podcast episode on What is Democracy?: In my first newsletter, I recommended Astra Taylor’s film “What is Democracy”; this episode of Jacobin’s podcast The Dig features a discussion between Taylor herself and Jacobin editor Alyssa Battistoni, on the background behind the film & what it’s trying to accomplish. For Taylor, the underlying message of the film surrounds what she sees as the incompatibility of capitalism and democracy: the former concentrates economic power in a way that impedes the functioning of the latter. As Taylor puts it, “capitalism concentrates wealth and power and that is inimical to the idea of a system where political power is broadly shared.” It’s a really sharp discussion that connects modern-day events with concepts in political theory, and I recommend listening even if you haven’t seen the film yet (but watch the film too!).

  • 🎙Pluto Press’s podcast episode on Choke Points: a really informative discussion centered on the book Choke Points, an edited collection of studies into worker power in the logistics sector that came out last year. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand worker organising in a variety of geographic, political and industrial contexts (Amazon warehouse workers in the US and Poland, truck drivers in Palestine and Indonesia, etc). I was surprised to learn how many commonalities there were underlying all these different types of work, both in the organising strategies and in the conditions that sparked the desire for organising (two-tier employment systems, for example). The podcast episode touches on some of the case studies in the book, but the most thoughtful discussion for me personally was the wider-ranging analysis of 1) why organising at “choke points” matters (i.e., its hugely disruptive potential) and 2) why disruptive actions are extremely rare today (i.e., capital & the state do their best to contain it).

  • 🎙TrashFuture podcast episode featuring James Meadway: Meadway is a former economics adviser to John McDonnell (a wonderful Labour MP and current shadow chancellor, for non-UK readers). This episode from earlier this month responds to the news that Kylie Jenner has become the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire, a designation that the episode scathingly dismantles. Some notes from the episode: Kylie Jenner’s cosmetics company is the perfect neoliberal company, as the production part has been completely outsourced (to the Global South, of course) and Jenner’s role is merely to slap her name on it and reap most of the profits; the futility of the profit motive as a guide in contemporary capitalism (now companies are just creating things no one really needs and manufacturing demand for it); and the necessity of developing new forms of property ownership to ensure democratic governance of production for the digital age (going beyond talk of “nationalising Facebook”, in other words). There’s a lot of insight packed into this episode, but I should warn new listeners that TrashFuture is a comedy podcast - it takes an irreverent, mocking-heavy approach filled with pop culture references (similar in style to Chapo Trap House), which can be refreshing but which may not be for everyone.

  • 🎙Antifada podcast episode featuring Hamilton Nolan: Really long (almost 2 hours) but great discussion of digital media unions, with former Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan. Notes from the episode: recent surge of unionising in journalism has to do with material conditions. Many journalists may have started out young and naive and full of faith in their own prowess so they’re okay with poor pay and permanent freelancer positions, but now that the field is undergoing massive layoffs, they’re starting to realise that their position is precarious and world isn’t just going to serve them unless they fight for it. (I feel like Silicon Valley is on the cusp of the same phenomenon - we had the golden ages when things were really good for at least a certain subset of tech workers, but as industry consolidates and more roles are shifted onto contingent staff, those days are probably behind us.) Nolan says that unions should be a feature of every workplace, because that’s the only way to balance out the power from above (of capital). There’s also some interesting discussion of journalism as a public service instead of run by private companies (I’m working on a piece about this!) and the downfalls of service unionism, whereby trade union leadership becomes entrenched and drifts away from its membership.

  • 🔗 Does Data Privacy Really Matter?: an intriguing Medium post by Michael Omar-Reagan, starting with the premise that there is no need for data privacy except under capitalism. In our current neoliberal hellscape, of course, data privacy is important - but only, Omar-Reagan says, “because capitalism allows corporations to treat our lives as commodities, to treat information about us as currency.” On the other hand, in “a world where no one has any authority over us, where no people or companies or governments can use our data to control whether we’re able to eat, pay the bills, and live. What does it matter if others have access to our data in that world?” It’s a thought-provoking piece, and I broadly agree with the sentiment, even though it risks defining “capitalism” so broadly that it includes any sort of “bad thing” we would want to get rid. Such a definition would certainly make defenders of capitalism look silly, but it would also make it hard to sketch out a positive alternative vision, if capitalism includes basically every unjust relationship and institution and system you can think of. I’ve heard critical theorist Nancy Fraser describe capitalism as an “institutionalised social order” that includes all sorts of identity-based oppression, and while I love that formulation, it’s also frustrating because it reminds us of just how much is at stake, and how difficult it will be to make any meaningful progress. If capitalism is so totalising and so intricate, then the solution isn’t merely nationalising a few industries or unionising some workplaces; instead, it requires a wholesale transformation of pretty much every exploitative societal construct. A worthy goal, to be sure, but not exactly a simple one.

  • 🔗 Sarah Taber’s tweet thread on software industry norms extending to agriculture: Last week, I wrote about the podcast “Farm to Taber”, which features astute critical discussion of the political economy of agriculture. This insightful tweet thread is very much in that vein, highlighting specifically how venture capitalists (whose only “expertise” is in software, not agriculture) believe they can apply the Silicon Valley ethos to agriculture. Taber writes: “Those "ossified corporate structures" that Silicon Valley hates so much because they "keep you from moving fast"? Yeah, a lot of them exist to keep top brass from doing hideously stupid things.” And: “Look at Tesla and Amazon's workplace safety records. You think tech leadership will suddenly decide to be diligent about working-class safety when they get to sectors where the workforce is mostly undocumented immigrants?” She also comments on the lack of upward mobility in the tech industry (which is the subject of one of my early fragments): “In legacy industries, at least a few people work their way up from the front lines into supervision & admin. […] it means mgmt has some experience to draw on to meet those goals. / However: "tech does real things" companies are predicated on there being a class of designers & programmers, and a class of grunts (drivers, order pickers, forklift drivers, etc) who'll never work their way up bc the way up is in being a tech person.”​