Friday, October 28, 2011

Queen for a day

The first news coming over the network into my ears this morning was bizarrely atemporal for a day of otherwise apocalyptic headlines: the decision of the 16 nations of the British Commonwealth to change a bunch of 17th century statutes and abolish the rule of male primogeniture. Meaning that, if Wills and Kate have themselves a little princess, and then a petit prince after that, the princess still gets daddy's job when he's done. I guess David Cameron has finally discovered the category of reform that he was born to drive.

While Cameron acts as midwife to England's thousand-year experiment in degenerative eugenics, childless physicist Prime Minister Angela Merkel, product of an extinct state socialist meritocracy, shows she has more cojones than the big bankers of Europe, calling their bluff in after-midnight negotiations and getting them to write off half of their Greek debt to avert default and potential meltdown.

While she and the other fiduciaries of Europe's pensioners struggle to maintain the 1999 future in a deleveraging world, back in the New World the occupation of the abstractions seems to have actually scratched the nerve of general popular discontent with the American distribution of wealth. Whether the movement will produce any real reform in the absence of any coherent political theory for how things should be organized differently remains to be seen, but when you start to think about large quantities of highly educated and chronically unemployed people mixing with demobilized veterans of our endless wars against other abstractions and seasoned with the radical political contingent that has always been around but largely invisible to the media since 1989, the realm of plausible scenarios becomes a lot more interesting. To the Wall Street Station?

Digesting the smorgasbord of my anachronistic morning newspaper and all these disparate threads, I am struck by how much of it is united by a common thread: the pursuit of the liberation from work. The escape from the grinding alienation of life in a capitalist society. For the 1%, by making enough money that you don't need to make any more. For the pensioners, by doing your time dutifully and graduating to an early and lengthy retirement of modest leisure. For the Occupy-ers, perhaps through a more self-expressive and communitarian existence in some alternate system they have been unable to actually articulate.

These all seem to me like variations on a Viagra commercial. The one where the grey but otherwise hot and healthy and implicitly prosperous couple is walking on the beach. Our R-rated, secularized, 21st century version of heaven—the happy variation of life when played by contemporary Capital's rules, the end of alienation we can supposedly obtain by enduring decades of it.

Consider the example of the railroad workers arrested in New York yesterday in a successful disability fraud scheme that would have extracted $1 billion of pension funds to finance the eternal days off of eleven people who "after claiming to be too disabled to stand, sit, walk or climb steps, retired to lives of regular golf, tennis, biking and aerobics." Is that really what we are all stealing to achieve? Simulations of country club leisure?

No wonder the same front page also reported changes in the rules of golf.

Is the real problem that, in a society that is dehabituating itself from the practice of financing today's consumption with the imaginary income of tomorrow, the idea of that world on the other side of the paycheck is no longer tenable? Once that narrative breaks, the whole thing unravels like a Ponzi scheme. After everyone stops complaining about it, what happens then? Maybe it takes a world without a future to teach people how to live an authentic now—maybe even one in which the golf courses are put to other uses.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How to win revolutions and influence people

[pic: Mohammed el Bibi brandishes Qaddafi's golden gun, courtesy of]

So our mediasphere exploded with revolution porn yesterday, as the West celebrated the death of one of its odder symbiotes. (You knew Qaddafi was doomed weeks ago when you learned his homes were being fire-bombed by Scandinavian F-16s; the image of having him dragged from a culvert by a kid in a Yankees cap and a mullet, stealing his golden gun, surely was scripted by some master of psyops.) All of our heads of state and talking heads lined up to celebrate his death as a moral victory of the Libyan people, subtextually reveling in the way the narratives are finally starting to play out in accordance with the American master mold, ever since the death of Osama. For our exhausted republic, sustained by our national myths of popular rebellion against unelected monarchs, actual revolutions on other continents are a very convenient way to provide the People with a way to vicariously experience the thing they wish they could do, but don't actually know how to—being so effectively brainwashed with the idea that the current society is the product of revolution. We the People! Or is it Up with People!?

I see the Occupy Austin folks around town, holding up signs saying "Join the Revolution." One of their staging areas is across the street from my home in far East Austin, a neon plant where you can hear them arguing in the wee hours about their messages of the day. It's authentically refreshing to see indigenous protest movements calling out our latest plutocratic disequilibrium, but when I see signs like "Bring Back the American Dream," I have to wonder whether any of these infantilized suburban white boys with look-at-me dreadlocks would be able to chase down a dictator under artillery fire, drag his body out of a drainage ditch, and put a bullet through his head.

[Pic: Get Motivated! billboard, Airport Boulevard, Austin]

At the same time as the Occupy-ers have gotten their signs into our minds, a different set of signs has been springing up all over town, on gigantic billboards along every major thoroughfare—advertisements for the upcoming Get Motivated! seminar featuring an ultimate lineup of Bill Cosby, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Mary Lou Retton, General Stanley McChrystal and a coterie of platitude-spinning entrepreneurs and salesmen. Only $1.95 per person!

Granted, I have a semiotic soft spot for the any seminar organizer with the lunatic genius to bring together America's peppiest little balance beam cheerleader and the Col. Kilgore of the GWOT (the man with his own custom nunchakus, whose command comprised "...a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs...a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts... [who] jokingly refer to themselves as Team America"). I imagine Mary Lou Retton enlisted by the "retired" General McChrystal as the leader of a next generation Gymkata squad, taking out the world's most flamboyant dictators with a combination of floor show acrobatics, pep squad aphorisms, and napalm. (And featuring Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott, their wacky post-Oscar Goldman handler.)

[Pic: the personal nunchakus of General Stanley McChrystal]

What I really wish is for a way to combine these disparate movements. Get Occupied!? All the more so when I read that the Get Motivated! seminars are a giant scam to sell people a smorgasbord of get rick quick schemes. I share the Occupy-ers' desire for radical change in our advertising-based mental environment, but I think an American political movement that attacks the idea of *success* is doomed to failure. Americans only object to wealth when, as with the 1% riding on top of the Great Recession, it becomes perceived as a ruling class that the average person no longer has the opportunity to join. But self-improvement and meritocratic achievement are the real American religions, and opting out of Alpha seems a juvenile political strategy. Think how powerful it would be if someone could appropriate the self-help business values and aspirations that run through American culture from Benjamin Franklin through Warren Buffett in service of an opposition to mega-Capital, Empire, and the class of plutocrats and technocrats they create?

I imagine a slightly shifted reality where radicalized versions of Stan McCrystal, Mary Lou Retton and Joel Osteen evangelize global change through self-help seminars and ubiquitous infomercials—revolution as a get rich quick scheme. The chaos of our apocalyptic globe repackaged as a leveling opportunity for political arbitrage, the geopolitical equivalent of a work-from-home program teaching you how to make big money off your neighbors' home foreclosures. Put a little MKULTRA in the Starbucks, and see what happens.

Either that, or wait to see how long before #Occupy gets successfully co-opted by Madison Avenue.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hacking the Warlord Complex

The Presidential campaign has been settling into full embarkation on the quest mode this week, as the pool of candidates locks in. Christie and the Rogue are staying on the sidelines. The Republican voters who would dethrone a demonized Obama have lost the possibility of a better choice than the current stable. For my adult lifetime, the Republicans have been waiting for the second coming of Ronald Reagan, and unsurprisingly, he's really dead.

Across the aisle, Democratic voters wait for the President to more emotively channel their feelings, their aspirations for proto-utopian benediction, a rekindling of that feeling they had on the night he won. Unfortunately, HOPE is a little more complicated when it is expressed through MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Meanwhile, a somewhat eclectic collection of dissenters is busy trying to #Occupy the abstraction, declaring that it is not looking for leaders. While there are things about the Occupy movement that seem pretty old school (like their admonitions to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932, which mandated segregation of investment banking and deposit-taking until its repeal in 1993, as if that were a silver bullet to kill the vampire infestation of Capital), the idea of the leaderless opposition movement is very much in tune with the Zeitgeist. Networks are the dominant organizational model of the 21st century, and they don't have heads. Perhaps that's what took the media so long to pay attention—the lack of a figurehead really hacks the master narrative (same way that the media desperately tried to elect Mohammed el-Baradei the leader of the Egyptian movement when he parachuted in from his plush life in the West).

The Presidential election season really stands in profound contrast to the movements we have seen all over the world this year. We have come to take voting for granted, as a kind of old world civic duty, structured as a consumer choice between two similar products. Coke or Pepsi? "Politics practiced as a branch of advertising," as JG Ballard noted. The liberated vigor that voting represented when it was a new freedom achieved through revolutions against capricious monarchs has degenerated into an emphysemic wheezing, as we watch our mature republics struggle to navigate a radically morphing world. Is it too heretical to question whether 18th century political structures are really up to the task of managing the 21st century world?

To me, it is self-evident that contemporary human social networks mediated by computing technology are naturally evolving to provide a more complete and participatory means for our governance, one that is likely to radically change existing republican political systems in the same way the tech boom of the 1990s challenged monolithic corporate powers tat had evolved in the 20th century. I think any development that lessens the concentration of power in any particular individual or group is a good development, one that will promote a healthier and freer society. But I also can't help but wonder: is there some inherent human need to elect chiefs that one is foolish to think can be changed? Can you really have a human society that is not structured as a pyramid with one dude at the top, expressing superior power to maintain order?

Consider the fact that, at its root, the Anglo-American legal system is based on the methods a family of nomadic warlords developed to administer the territory of England after they had conquered it under force of arms. Our property laws, largely evolved from the means used to settle disputes between the warlord's senior minions about the respective lands they were charged with running to maintain dominion. Is it really surprising when you hear the Russian intelligentsia whine about how the people don't really want democracy—they just want Putin the tiger hunter to maintain order and the pride of the nation? The fact that basically every corporation is structured like a medieval military band with a single chief at the top, only periodically accountable to the board of elders or the tribal stakeholders to whom they are accountable, says a lot about the natural order of things. Are we always waiting for the return of the King?

One can't help but wonder whether the great danger of atomizing the distribution of power through new constitutional codes of the network wouldn't just expose us more to a mob that can be manipulated by a strongman that knows how to push their buttons. Network-based movements give me great hope for the potential for a more authentic democracy. But they also make me wonder: what would Goebbels do with Facebook?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

To the App-Cave!

Going over my notes and recollections from FenCon last weekend, this one stands out even among a LOT of news, good advice and reading recommendations. Pyr editor Lou Anders showed a few of us this fantastic iPad/ iPhone app for reading comic books digitally. It's called ComiXology and I found it very nicely reviewed at a British tech review Website.

DC and Marvel are digitally available this way and so are plenty of edgier, bolder independent comics. Oh-oh. I have never felt an itch to invest in an iPad until now. I've always loved looking at comic books, and this app gives you a full-color, flexible view that can sequence through the panels in order and then zoom to the full page for the layout to be appreciated. Between that and the enormous amount of talent doing comics these days - wow.