We Have Them Surrounded in Their Tanks

Originally published at ribbonfarm.com

“We have them surrounded in their tanks.”

So spoke Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, the infamous Iraqi Information Minister in the first days of the American invasion. His missives should be an inspiration to public relations personnel everywhere; he was unshakably on-message even as the foundations on which he stood collapsed. His clueless investment in Saddam Hussein’s regime ended swiftly but not poorly (he was reportedly captured and released by the Americans, and is now living in the United Arab Emirates).

Muhammad was a true believer in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, and its collapse was inconceivable. In this respect his belief functioned much like that of those apocalypticists whose rapture passes them by, an evaporative cooling effect separating the doubtful from the doubling-down. al-Sahhaf was clueless to be sure, but clueless need not mean unintelligent, nor is the ability to stay on message dependent upon cluelessness.

In fact, cluelessness is adaptive given a sufficiently stable environment. It’s costly in terms of time and productivity to always be developing that new skill set, looking for that new opportunity. It’s often advantageous to settle down and, like a sea squirt, fuel yourself with your now-irrelevant skills at hustling and hedging. In previous centuries this could sustain generations; it’s the impetus for the trade guilds and much of feudalism. The expansionary capitalist economies and the rapid technological growth and dispersion that accompanied threw old patterns of stability into disarray. Nevertheless, the massive scale of capital destruction in the wake of two world wars and a worldwide depression prepared the womb-like conditions that became the economy of large organizations. The industrial revolution had already displaced farmers, previously the primary American occupation, and now the GI Bill and similar efforts succeeded in building the infrastructure for what would became a “service economy”, the world of the Organization Man.

This implicit compact between workers, companies and the state held long enough for it to feel normative, and for the expectations to develop that this was a sustainable and safe environment to adapt oneself to. The salaried professional, at first a middle-class aspiration, became a middle-class presumption. Jeff Schmidt, in his book Disciplined Minds, defines professionals by “their ability to sell more than their ordinary labor power”, by also selling “their ideological labor power, their ability to extend those instructions to new situations.” This is in stark contrast to the traditional working class who, as nonprofessionals, “do not extend their employers’ ideologies through their work, because they do not make ideology-based decisions for their employers”. As a result, traditional workers are threats only really to the extent that they organize politically; a disgruntled, compliant workforce is easily accomodated. Professionals, on the other hand, are entrusted with substantially more power relative to their positions, power which is traded for their ability to find novel solutions that are in keeping with management’s priorities.

Employees are often willingly coerced or even suborned. The institutions that have been developed over the past decades provide a ready pool of laborers, and the arms race that has developed around credentialing (and its attendant loan bubble) is a feature, rather than a bug. It was the first step in a series of increasing steps towards mitigating risks by externalizing them onto individuals directly or by proxy through government social programs. This pool (ocean, really) of over-qualified and under-employed labor has grown as the world of work, in America particularly, has become increasingly contingent. Most jobs lost in the wake of the 2008 recession were middle-income; the jobs that came back either paid better but required more skills and credentials, or avoided risk by only offering part time employment, contract work, or worse pay. This is a cycle that is far from complete; the disruption of farming resulted in huge gains in productivity but a massive loss of employment. Traditional manufacturing has done the same, albeit not quite to the same extremes. The middle-class office job was an evolutionary glitch in the economic ecosystem; quickly developing to exploit an economic niche, and in the process of disappearing (or transforming) nearly as quickly.

The resulting precariat is moving a dozen directions; some doubling down on traditional credentials, deferring interest payments on loans for a couple more years; others are betting big on being the next massive tech IPO, although the reality is more that of a lottery in which the winners receive a decent salary (if divided across the previous years of work) and a job through a leveraged buy-out. (For more on this latter point, take a look at Venkat’s series on Enterpreneurs as New Labor I, II, III, published on his Forbes blog). With the dominance of salaried professionals as a percentage of the American workforce prior to the dot-com boom and 2008 recession, the ideological discipline that was demanded of corporate professionals has bled into the larger service economy, where baristas, adjuncts and other members of the precariat are finding themselves chasing college degrees or employer credentialing and a social media profile with clout. This is something that MOOCs and those trying to disrupt the education space often miss; not all of the present system’s massive inefficiencies are unproductive, with many working as a kind of filtration and feedback service. The outputs of these systems are creative individuals who can “revolutionize” their industries within the bounds of their employer’s interests or a permitted political imagination. The remainder serve as a ready pool of over-skilled and under-employed workers that serve as ballast, disincentivizing any too-sudden movements.

The injunction given Millenials in particular forms a kind of double-bind: you need to get a job to become qualified (there is no job/you don’t have the qualifications); you need to become qualified to get a job (you have a Ph. D. but still no job/you have a job and hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans); you are a leech and a waste to the system if you’re incapable of obtaining qualification and a job. Studiously avoided is the question: does America have 40 hours of socially-useful work for 195 million people (the number of working-age adults) to do? And if we genuinely don’t, why waste society’s resources on pretending there is? Americans have a moralized discourse around work, and those who have attempted to pose counter-narratives (in the form of lifestyle design, or minimalist living, or nomadism) find themselves not only pushing against cultural and bureaucratic constraints, but endlessly responding to social responses that range from benevolently misguided to outright hostile. The slow push from both the radical left and the libertarians towards a universal basic income is a recognition of this social dilemma, and attempts to provide a floor that less daring would-be entrepreneurs could leverage.

Some are taking the next step, and are attempting to reach escape velocity. Balaji Srinivasan’s infamous exit speech was one such attempt. It was perceived as a threat largely because it was. In the same way, the hype around bitcoin is less about its potential as a currency, and more about its infrastructural potential for making, among other things, unambiguous property contracts. Efforts such as Blueseed and Mars One are in the same spirit, where entrepreneurialism steps beyond the realms of product, and attempts to rewrite parts of the social contract itself.

Pushback comes from the established centers of wealth and power (Srinivasan’s so-called ‘Paper belt’), but also from would-be allies who distrust the intentions of would-be benevolent dictators such as Musk, Thiel or Bezos. Social democracy has its problems, but its commitment to all its citizens is highly valued, and it’s an ideal that any present government can be held accountable to. If anything, enfranchisement should be enlarged rather than shrunk. The bountiful visions of the tech world elides whether the future will be radically inclusionary or a kind of plutocratic secession into a rentist (or, for the paranoid, exterminist) future. Conflated with this is the concern that, even given pure intentions, they will fail to achieve escape velocity and instead become beholden to their financiers. The moment we are in today—economically, politically, technologically—is akin to the that feeling in Tahrir Square just before Hosni Mubarak was ousted; the bated breath is about what comes next.

Speculation aside, in the present the middle-class presumption/aspiration remains the professional. Within the professionalized class (whether or not they ever are awarded with a position) you can find adaptive speciation into sociopaths, clueless and losers. We began with the clueless: at a certain point, it just makes sense to some people to commit to an institution, or an organization, or a standards body, or a social network, or a particular skill set. This kind of commitment can provide outsized benefits (consider a Cisco-certified network engineer or a competent FORTRAN programmer) but with an attendant opportunity cost, and an increased risk profile in the face of a rapid and drastic ecological shift. The rise of mobile and cloud technologies, for instance, does not simply render some PC-specific technologies obsolescent, but in some cases the entire approach to application development must be rethought. The economy as a whole has gone through the equivalent of a K/T extinction event, and we’re still in the rapid diversify-and-die-off stage of feeling our way towards a new partial equilibrium. Give as that’s likely decades off (if not endlessly deferred), in the meantime we’re left to gamble on environments that may be able to be stably exploited long enough to justify the expenditure of effort.

Where this becomes irrational is only when commitment to these sunk costs outlasts environmental stability; Kartik’s demonstrations with the Game of Life, Go and Diplomacy showed how temporarily stable configurations can quickly dissipate in the wake of a destabilizing external interaction. Psychologically, there is a temptation to react rather than respond, to insist that things return to “how they were”, despite the ratchet of history. Sunk time and money tends to get tangled with psychological investment, and at a certain point this can ossify to where all that is left is what Venkat has termed a “scorched mind.” A scorched mind is one that is forced into life scripts so far outside its ken that it halts in honorable refusal; in the meantime, the damage is simply routed around.

Professionalized losers do not rest in the security of mind that the clueless obtain. Whether fully or only partially aware, they understand the absurdities and contradictions inherent to professionalized work. They are aware when they soften statements to clients in order to reduce potential liability. They wink to one another during company meetings when they recognize babytalk about quarterly earnings or rationalizations for layoffs, and acquiesce to powertalk dictats. Keeping on message, to them, is about pragmatics. It’s usually fairly simple to discern what is and is not permissible to say or do in a given organization; to understand whether the harassment policy is effectual, or whether software licensing terms are honored in spirit or in the breach. This dynamic can be more apparent from outside a given field. For instance, contrary to what many journalists say, it’s fairly clear that there are certain stories that the New York Times, Al Jazeera or RT simply don’t cover, or whose coverage is conspicuous in what it does not include. This is very rarely the result of explicit censorship; rather, reporters self-govern themselves to understand what is and is not appropriate to their audience and organization, where ‘appropriate’ and ‘not significantly harmful to their stakeholders’ tend to overlap considerably. The same is true in science, where Schmidt (whose background was physics), writes:

“If, for example, a government agency makes $43.9 million available to universities for basic research in nuclear physics, then university physicists will do $43.9 million worth of basic research in nuclear physics. The government agency, for all practical purposes, will have ordered university physicists to do $43.9 million worth of basic research in nuclear physics. Although this is not the kind of order that names specific researchers, it is an order that individual university professors do end up carrying out.”

This isn’t the old Marxist idea of false consciousness, but rather a sort of rationality under other axioms. Peter Sloterdijk, in The Critique of Cynical Reason, calls it “enlightened false consciousness”, an idea Slavoj Žižek paraphrased as “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” This is propaganda of the second-order, and it’s not accidental. In modern corporate-speak it’s about establishing an appropriate work culture, or vision-setting. In either case, action precedes belief; the belief comes later, through a combination of post hoc rationalizations attempting to psychologically integrate the fact of the actions undertaken.

There is a process by which losers become clueless. First, a semi-stable work or skill ecosystem will encourage employees to begin to invest more in their housing institutions. New techniques promise to overcome some of the perversions of the present; in the 90s, this was the idea of open source, at present it seems to be holacracy. Slowly, the cynicism gets traded for a tentative optimism. The ironic parroting of corporate jargon gets a shot of sincerity. What, after all, is the alternative? For a loser, changing the system is largely unavailable as an option, and acquiescence to organizational norms is seen as the reasonable approach, with the hope, perhaps, to ‘change things from within.’ Žižek writes that “[totalitarian ideology] is no longer meant, even by its authors, to be taken seriously — its status is just that of a means of manipulation, purely external and instrumental; its rule is secured not by its truth-value but by simple extra-ideological violence and promise of gain” (not quite Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit, but it’s getting close).

Loser, clueless, sociopath; these are taxonomies of action, not perjoratives. Nevertheless, the deals on offer here seem underwhelming for all three: bullshit jobs, precarity, entrepreneurs as self-growing, self-harvesting labor; what are the winning numbers? There are none, at least none that are stable in the long term. There are simply strategies for exploration and exploitation, and strategies for shifting between them.

This doesn’t mean that terms cannot be renegotiated; social orders can be reworked, either from the inside given sufficient force, or from external, competitive pressure. Our contradictory impulses around how we choose to understand and value work need a healthy dose of political imagination, and nurseries within which they can falter and develop. But this doesn’t happen in a regimen of ideological discipline. Action precedes belief.