🌹Class denialism, payday loans, freedom

Tech/left newsletter - March 10

A weekly newsletter on economics, inequality, and the tech industry from a socialist perspective. Please forward to anyone who might be interested.

Fragments round-up

Blog posts from the last 7 days of my personal blog-post-a-day challenge for 2019.

  • Class denialism (day 62): The grand delusion of modern-day liberalism is that it denies the existence of distinct economic classes, instead opting to pretend that we're all in it together.

  • Free software, free ethics (day 63): Did the free software movement sell out? Or was its vision of a software commons a doomed proposition from the outset?

  • The payday lender your boss recommends (day 64): Even, a fintech startup that offers payday loans, presents itself as tackling poverty. In reality, it's merely profiting from it.

  • Capitalism and freedom (day 65): Why do free market ideologues think capitalism is the best way to achieve freedom, and how should the left respond?

  • Homeless? There's an app for that (day 66): The great delusion of startup culture is that basically every problem can be solved with a startup, even a social problem like homelessness.

  • What will we do without the entrepreneurs? (day 67): A brief tale illustrating the tragic consequences of misunderstanding who creates value in a society, told through a series of tweets.

  • The struggle is ongoing (day 68): Reflections on the oft-ridiculed liberal idea that we live in 'the end of history', and what that meant to me personally.

Recommendations

  • 🎙Farm to Taber podcast: A podcast about agriculture from a very critical perspective, hosted by crop scientist and ex-farmworker Sarah Taber. Episode topics include software eating the world, the hidden costs of America’s obsession with family farms (and their racist underpinnings), why indoor farming isn’t more popular, and agriculture’s reliance on migrant workers. It’s a really fascinating podcast with sharp takes whose relevance often extends beyond agriculture. Highly recommended.

  • 🎙 Against the Grain on KPFA: A Bay Area-based radio show hosted by Sasha Lilley and C.S. Soong, filled with really great radical commentary on politics, economics, culture, etc. The episode on shortening the work week featuring Kathi Weeks is really interesting. (If you’re interested in reading more about movements to shorten the work week, check out Autonomy, a think tank based in the UK.)

  • 📖 Valley of the Gods by Alexandra Wolfe: Published in 2017, this journalistic account follows the lives of the first class of Thiel fellows (participants in Peter Thiel’s fellowship to get kids to drop out of college, originally called “20 under 20”. The book itself is disjointed and kind of all over the place, but it’s a fun look into Silicon Valley’s startup culture, even if it’s not nearly as critical as it should be. Some truly incredible scenes from the book: one peripheral character pitches investment banks on his idea to “privatize state lotteries” (!!!), and he ends up going with Lehman Brothers … right before the crash; a husband-and-wife entrepreneur duo manage to sell their social networking app (Bebo) to AOL in 2008 for $850 million but then buy it back 5 years later for $1 million; a co-living space in San Francisco meant for entrepreneurs that fashions itself a “hero accelerator”.

  • 📖 Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan: A work of contemporary science fiction that came out earlier this week, which imagines what would happen if the Internet suddenly disappeared. It’s a thoughtful read with a distinctively anti-capitalist bent, and worth your time if you like near-future sci-fi! I wrote a longer review on Goodreads.

  • 🔗 Move Fast and Build Solidarity: a thoughtful reported piece for The Nation by Avi Asher-Schapiro, on tech worker organising (what’s been achieved so far + challenges ahead). I like that it connects the struggles of Uber drivers over working conditions with Google engineers who don’t want to work on drones for the military - at least in my mind, they’re different aspects (fronts?) of the same struggle. I also liked the warning that these corporations will try to co-opt any worker actions, which workers will have to be vigilant about: “just as Starbucks assuages public misgivings about inequities in the international-commodities market by offering a branded version of fair-trade coffee, the tech giants will try to neutralize public opposition with partial gestures toward social justice—for example, more robust diversity programs for high-paid workers.”

  • 🔗 Recode interview with Chamath Palihapitiya: This is a long and, frankly, bizarre interview with Silicon Valley quasi-celebrity Chamath Palihapitiya, former early exec at Facebook turned venture capitalist. (He’s also a billionaire.) I used to have a lot of respect for him in my startup days, because he seemed so much more socially conscious than your average VC, even if he also seemed like your typically immature nouveau riche tech bro sometimes. In the last year or so, he seems to have gone off the rails a little bit: he gave a highly critical talk at Stanford about the harm done by Facebook (and Silicon Valley as a whole); and the VC firm he runs imploded, to the detriment of employees and founders alike. In this interview, Kara Swisher tries to draw out what happened to him - why did this wildly successful and revered venture capitalist have a mid-life crisis, burning down everything he had worked so hard to build? Chamath does not come off very well in it (he sounds way more narcissistic in this than I’ve ever noticed before), but the interview is fascinating for its glimpses into the venture capital world. Topics include: the downsides of VC funding, the tax imposed on the startup ecosystem by big tech companies, why Chamath doesn’t like AOC’s policies (reading between the lines, I’d guess it’s because he’s a billionaire), and how accumulating a billion dollars didn’t make him happy or fulfilled (no shit). I’m torn between sympathy with him (for at least realising how terrible the SV mythology is) and extreme frustration at how limited in scope his epiphany was. Kill your heroes and all that, I guess.

  • 🔗 From Vice director Adam McKay, a new series captures the Obama administration’s neoliberal worldview: a terrific review by New Statesman editor Hettie O’Brien on This Giant Beast that is the Global Economy, which I recommended in last week’s newsletter. Since that newsletter, I’ve watched a couple more episodes, and could not agree more with Hettie’s point: “Depending on your tolerance for smugness, this is either entertaining or irritating.” The target audience appears to be teenage boys and those whose sense of humour leans decidedly puerile. It’s informative and thought-provoking at times, though, and worth watching through a critical lens, keeping in mind the show’s political biases. As Hettie writes: “A scene with two warring balloon sellers is a zealous illustration of the series’ moral premise: that market competition is a sacred good allowing greater consumer choice and constraining rent-seeking monopolies. (Curiously, Amazon and Jeff Bezos go unmentioned.) ¶ This moralising economic worldview was perfectly attuned to the Obama administration in which Penn served. According to its logic, capitalism faltered because of malign exceptions and moral deficits that could be remedied with liberal balance.”

  • 🔗 The Sharing Economy Was Always a Scam: a thoughtful long read on the sharing economy by Susie Cagle, considering the effects of the cultural shifts promulgated by sharing economy companies on wealth inequality (which the companies themselves deny). I really liked these paragraphs: “Over the first half of the 2010s, the so-called sharing economy evolved into a powerful new multibillion-dollar economic model. At about the same time, the definition of “sharing” began to shift. Sharing still referred to the peer-to-peer model of leveraging underutilized assets — sharing our goods with each other — but it was also increasingly applied to more traditional centralized rental models. ¶ Even though the term “sharing” was quickly being drained of any meaning, industry insiders still touted its social benefits. In 2014, Airbnb global head of community Douglas Atkin told a sharing economy conference, “The sharing economy deserves to succeed. There’s a decentralization of wealth and control and power. That’s why this economy is a better economy.””

  • 🔗 Ideas Without Power: an article in Catalyst (Jacobin’s scholarly journal) by Adam Major. Looks at the history of neoliberalism as more than just an intellectual lineage, by considering how the ideas (and their implementation) were shaped by the larger economic circumstances at hand. Some quotes that sum up the (long) piece: “structural material conditions and institutionalized political power can lead political elites to strategically select among different sets of expert ideas”, and “ideas, even the obscure, technocratic ideas of professional economists, cannot be understood outside of the political context that gives ideas shape and influence”. (You might have to be a subscriber to read it, so if it’s paywalled for you but you’re interested, email me - I’d be happy to send you the PDF.)