Workplace surveillance, Peter Thiel, and gratitude politics

Tech/left newsletter - April 16

A weekly newsletter from a socialist perspective on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley.

Personal news

This was supposed to go out on Sunday, but I didn’t get any time to write it in between attending Historical Materialism in NYC, flying back to SF, and catching up on the newest episode of Game of Thrones. (Speaking of Game of Thrones, if you’re only going to read one review of the latest episode, read this one: SHOOT A NINTH SEASON, YOU COWARDS for the Los Angeles Review of Books.) I think the HM NYC panels were recorded, and I have notes of my own as well, so I’ll post those on my website & link them here once I get a chance.

Some self-crit on today’s newsletter: this week’s fragments are shorter and less considered than I’d have liked because I was traveling, but things should pick up again this week once I’ve gotten back into my routine (and once I’m less sick). On the other hand, I got to listen to a bunch of podcasts, so this week’s recommendations are podcast-heavy.

Fragments

  • Workplace surveillance (day 97): Workplace surveillance is more than merely an issue of privacy. It's about power, and control, and deepening a relation of class domination.

  • Eero's fire sale (day 98): The seemingly singular story of a distressed startup's acquisition which inadvertently reveals the con embedded within capitalism.

  • Why Peter Thiel praises monopolies (day 99): Thoughts on Peter Thiel's political belief system and the unstated assumptions buried within it.

  • Gratitude is a trap (day 100): How dare you criticise a system that provided you with the means of criticising it in the first place? You should be grateful. 

  • If the market doesn't give us affordable housing ... (day 101): An elegant way to fix the housing crisis would be to take housing out of the market sphere. Here's one way we could do that.

  • There are experts, and there are experts (day 102): Liberals love to scorn conservatives' dismissal of so-called 'experts'. But there is no ultimate technocratic authority to appeal to.

  • Insulin as a public service (day 103): The public health crisis created by rising insulin costs is a strong argument for public provision of important drugs. This isn’t as impractical as it sounds.

Recommended content

  • 🔗 The College Admissions Ring Tells Us How Much Schoolwork Is Worth: Malcolm Harris (author of Kids These Days) wrote for NY Mag about the elite college admissions scandal last month. “The best thing you can do for your own future employment prospects is to invest in your human capital: learn to code or […] whatever […]. Training according to guesses about the notoriously unreliable future demands of rich people is not particularly fun, and it’s obvious why their own kids can’t be bothered. But most of us have to try, and there arises a supply-and-demand problem: If everyone teaches themselves to code and the supply of human capital goes up, it’s suddenly very easy for employers to find coders, and the demand (read: pay) goes down. What’s advantageous for the individual is self-defeating for the class.”

  • 🔗 Big Tech Companies With Government Contracts (from The Onion): a short round-up. A little too real. Highlights include Apple (“Working with ICE to design stylish, ultra-minimalist migrant detention centers”), YouTube (“Aiding military efforts to recruit more white nationalists”), and Amazon (“Providing law enforcement agencies with facial recognition software to aid racial profiling efforts”).

  • 🔗 How 'Liberal' Late-Night Talk Shows Became a Comedy Sinkhole: this piece is MEL Magazine is well worth reading if you were ever (or are still) a fan of shows like The Daily Show and hosts like Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee. I used to get most of my political news through these shows, and it was only sometime in late 2016/early 2017 that I found myself unable to watch them anymore; it took even longer to figure out why. What finally crystallised it for me was reading critiques of these shows from the left, in magazines like The Baffler and The Point.

  • 🔗 Open letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors: Over 6,000 Amazon employees signed this open letter asking Amazon to take actual action on climate change. “Amazon has the resources and scale to spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible and necessary to address the climate crisis. We believe this is a historic opportunity for Amazon to stand with employees and signal to the world that we’re ready to be a climate leader.” The breadth of support for this (6,342 employees in less than a week!) is a testament to the growing gap between rank-and-file workers & leadership in the tech industry. Even if this letter doesn’t accomplish anything on its own, I still think it’s a strategically useful demand - either Amazon will drastically change course, or (more likely) leadership will ignore/evade the demands in a way that politicises tech workers further, highlighting the need for more worker power. Related: Naomi Klein’s tweet on this, suggesting that tech workers design an equivalent of the Green New Deal for the tech sector (“If that means expropriating the assets of employers who got rich stealing our data, so be it.”). I love it.

  • 🔗 Uber drivers of the world, unite!: a New Internationalist article by Callum Cant and Jamie Woodcock of Notes From Below, identifying gig workers as being part of the new choke points of labour organising. Technology may have vastly transformed the economic landscape, leading to a new and unfamiliar configuration of capital and labour, but it doesn’t mean there is no room for resistance entirely. “The transnational spread of struggles against platforms is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Before Uber, it would have been hard to imagine how taxi drivers in San Francisco, London, Bangalore and Johannesburg could have shared interests. However, the centralization of platform capitalism, along with the way these companies monopolize and grow, means that these drivers now have a common employer. Or rather a common enemy, given that Uber refuses to admit that they employ any of the drivers. ¶ Across all these struggles, migrant workers are at the fore: [....] In the logistics sector and the ‘last mile’ of platform capitalism, the truth is exactly the opposite – migrant workers are leading the fight for the entire working class.”

  • 🔗 The Case For Free College: Sparky Abraham for Current Affairs. Targeted at liberals who disapprove of “free college” as a policy proposal, because they fear it might be regressive, and instead defend the current means-tested system (or something less expensive, but still short of a universally free system). Highly worth reading as a general defense of universal programs over means-tested ones, both in economic terms (it’s more efficient to have less bureaucracy) and in strategic ones (universal programs are harder to take away, because they become naturalised).

  • 🎙The Intercepted podcast episode, American Dystopia: I haven’t listened to this podcast before, but I liked this episode for the bit featuring Cory Doctorow (from 18 mins in until 39 mins). Topics covered: scifi as more than just predicting, but also intervening (see also: Marx’s 11th thesis); the necessity of combating ecological crisis as a collective project, rather than an individualist one (e.g., prepping) that assumes humanity has no shared destiny (this assumption is probably wrong - even the ultra-rich need other people around to keep systems running); why issues like data privacy and fraud can only be addressed in parallel with capitalism, due to economic interdependencies - technical or regulatory interventions will only go so far until you change the way markets function.

  • 🎙Slate podcast episode on Uber/Lyft drivers’ strike: really good coverage of the recent ride hailing drivers’ strike in California, featuring input from law professor Veena Dubal. This isn’t a left podcast, but the general tone is to be very critical of these companies. Topics covered: why drivers are angry (lack of control, pay cuts, deactivations); drivers’ legal status as contractors (the recent Dynamex ruling), the general sense of precarity in the wider economic landscape which is pushing so many people towards these jobs in the first place. Something I thought of while listening to this: even though these companies have terrible economic fundamentals, their valuations could still remain high indefinitely under the current system. In other words, we can’t count on the invisible hand of the market to fix working conditions for drivers, by putting Uber/Lyft out of business and funding something more inhumane in their place. It’s like that Keynes quote: “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent”. Horrible companies can remain dominant longer than workers can bear it, which means they’ll have to take things into their own hands.

  • 🎙 Working People podcast: I recently discovered this lovely podcast hosted by Maximillian Alvarez, which bills itself as a “podcast by, for, and about the working class today”. I’m still working my way through its back episodes, but I really liked this long one with Lucy Lloyd, a self-taught Apple product repair technician. The episode covers the the right to repair (not just a niche matter for technicians, but a question of power as consumers), while also noting the hypocrisy of Apple - remember that 1997 ad about the “misfits” who “have no respect for the status quo”? Funny how corporations that start out with non-confirmist lingo always end up becoming the status quo they were apparently trying to disrupt. I also loved the episode’s intro, which talks about ideology as a means of masking the system’s extraction of resources from workers, and that one way the system reproduces itself is by convincing us that it’s the only way things can be. Other recommended episodes: Miriam Posner on supply chains and the limits of individualist solutions (“purifying” yourself via ethical consumption or production does no good for those being exploited in the supply chain by others - instead, put your efforts into labour organising to affect the supply chain at large), and Tarence Ray on the political contradictions of rural America​.

  • 🎙 TrashFuture episode on international relations: a solo book club episode in which Riley discusses a paper in the IR field by Thomas Carothers: “The End of the Transition Paradigm”. I don’t know much about international relations but this was presently in a very accessible (though very critical) way. What’s interesting about this paper is that it was written by someone who is decidedly not a Marxist, but who (perhaps inadvertently) seems to draw similar conclusions to many Marxists. The transition paradigm in the paper’s title refers to the idea, similar to Fukuyama’s “end of history”, that liberal democracy represents some sort of end state, and that countries that aren’t quite there yet are simply in transition to that state. The problem with his perspective is that it sees democracy as a state where you can kind of just rest, as opposed to a process that you have to keep pushing for. As Carothers notes in his paper, what we often see in ostensibly democratic states is “feckless pluralism”: many political parties, but disconnected from true political power, which is concentrated among elites; the result is a facade of democracy over despotic politics. In other words, elections are window dressing in unequal societies, and they cannot overcome the massive socioeconomic disparities within society. Carothers is essentially implying that robust democracy requires economic equality, though he seems to be limiting the scope of his analysis to developing nations, not, say, the United States.