Category Archives: The current system
I’ve had this book on my shelf for at least a year…finally read it in its entirety this morning, and am strongly recommending that anyone serious about changing the current inhuman system do the same. It’s Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State by Jeriah Bowser (2015). It can be downloaded for free at http://www.hamptoninstitution.org under “Publications.”
“The two major parties in this country rest on a contradiction,” Chris Morrill wrote on Truthout 12-15 in an article entitled “Intentionally or Not, Progressives Are Coaxing Us Back Into a Corporate Party.” Morrill says, “their mass bases are working- and middle-class people, but they get funds from and answer to a tiny elite at the top. It’s obvious with the Republicans. They whip up racism, heterosexism and other social issues to get people to vote against their economic interests. The Democrats masquerade as the ‘party of the people’ (appealing to workers, making progressive proposals), but act in the interests of the rich (lowering workers’ expectations and implementing policies that benefit their wealthy funders). Over the past 40 years, Democrats have actually implemented and overseen attacks on workers and marginalized groups. Joe Biden and Bill Clinton delivered crime bills that caused mass incarceration to skyrocket. Clinton hollowed out social programs in the name of ‘welfare reform.’ Barack Obama deported more people than Trump has, despite running in 2008 as a champion for immigrant rights. These years have created an even greater gulf than usual between the Democratic Party’s popular base and the corporate class to whom it answers, especially since the Great Recession and Obama’s indifference to those who suffered under it. Movements have sprung up against the trend: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock, along with a serious shift to the left, especially among those under 45.
Candidates like Biden and, in another fashion, Pete Buttigieg and former contender Beto O’Rourke, have acted like none of this ever happened, continuing to push the same moderate positions that Hillary Clinton did. Biden’s honest about it, while Buttigieg and O’Rourke have offered the same ‘hope and change’ trappings of Obama ‘08 and Clinton ‘92 to hide their centrist politics. Other Democrats, seeing the writing on the wall, have staked out more progressive positions and rhetoric, not to transform the country or build a progressive movement, but to win votes and revive the corporate Democratic Party. In the leadup to the 2020 campaign season, Cory Booker, one of the top three Senate recipients of campaign money from insurance companies last time he ran for office, signed onto Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill. Kamala Harris marketed herself as an anti-racist, challenging Biden’s record on busing and school desegregation in her most dynamic debate moment. She pitched herself as a fighter ‘for the people,’ despite an extensive record of jailing and prosecuting mainly Black and poor folks. Elizabeth Warren is similarly trying to thread the needle, albeit more to the left than Booker or Harris. She’s positioning herself left enough to capture Sanders’s base, but right enough to not alienate moderates and her billionaire contributors. She offers Medicare for All with asterisks and hedges: a public option for kids, the poor, and middle-aged first, then real single-payer (supposedly) two years later. As Tom Moran wrote, praising Warren’s plan, ‘This isn’t the year for Democrats to take a risk like this, and Warren seems to understand that.’ She’s not for socialism but for ‘saving capitalism.’” Sanders, the only real progressive candidate, seems “strident” at times in his responses. I doubt the Democratic establishment will allow him to be nominated, even though I think he could beat Trump handily, because, as I’ve written time and time again, I think Trump was elected at least partly because Americans want real change, whatever it looks like. If by some miracle Sanders was elected, Congress – or at least the Senate – would block him at every turn. (As I’ve also written many times before, this is how the system was designed – to avoid “mob rule” (democracy). The whole thing needs to be completely revamped, and maybe Sanders’ election could be the beginning of that. I still think, however, that his movement would have been stronger if he’d run (both times, if a second time would have been necessary) as a third party candidate, the undisputed head of a progressive movement.
In addition to Sanders, as Morrill indicates, “the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” as represented by recently elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or, in the past, Dennis Kucinich), “recognizes the widening gulf threatening the party’s future, and is trying to save it, while facing opposition from the party’s still-dominant right wing. Obama, for example, recently admitted he’d seek to stop Sanders’s nomination if he got too close to victory.
During the debates, many progressives watch with the hope that Warren or Sanders get the jump on Biden or Buttigieg. The problem is, intentionally or not, these progressive candidates are coaxing us back into a thoroughly corporate party, with no guarantees we won’t face the same disappointments as ever. Far from leading us out to found a new party that’s accountable to ordinary people and not just the rich, these candidates are trapping us in.”
Sorry to be so depressing and “cynical,” but this is the reality. If we don’t face it and do something about it, we’ll end up with the same old shit. Aren’t you, like me, tired of that? Let’s stop wasting our limited energy on a false political map.
This post is an edited version of Dexter Filkins’ 12-9-19 article in The New Yorker magazine, titled and subtitled “Blood and Soil in India: A Hindu-nationalist government has cast 200 million Muslims as internal enemies.” (Bear in mind while reading that this is just one example, along with the United States, of a country currently taken over by such forces.)
“On August 11th, two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent soldiers to pacify the Indian state of Kashmir, a reporter appeared on the Republic TV news channel, riding a motor scooter through the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital and largest city. She assured viewers that everything was getting back to normal, but conducted no interviews – there was no one on the streets to talk to. Other coverage on the same channel showed people dancing ecstatically, along with the words, ‘Jubilant Indians celebrate Modi’s Kashmir masterstroke.’ A week earlier, Modi’s government had announced that it was suspending Article 370 of the constitution, which grants autonomy to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The provision, written to help preserve the state’s religious and ethnic identity, largely prohibits members of India’s Hindu majority from settling there. As part of Modi’s ‘New India,’ he’d flooded the state with troops and detained hundreds of prominent Muslims likely to ‘create trouble,’ as Republic TV described it.”
Filkins visited Srinagar with Muslim Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, and saw “soldiers on every street corner, machine-gun nests guarding intersections, and shuttered shops. Friday prayers were banned, schools closed, and cell-phone and internet service cut off.” Ayyub and Indian photographer Avani Rai were arrested in the city hospital where they’d gone to see young men blinded by police small-gauge shotguns.
Muslims make up about 14% of India’s population, with most Muslims having moved to the new country of Pakistan in 1947, if they didn’t already live there. Two million Indians died in the violence accompanying this transition, known as Partition, and afterward both sides harbored enduring grievances over the killings and the loss of ancestral land. Kashmir, on the border, became the site of a long-running proxy war.
“In 1925, K.B. Hedgewar, a physician from central India, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization dedicated to the idea that India was a Hindu nation, and that Hindus were entitled to rule over minorities. Members of the RSS believed that many Muslims were descended from Hindus who’d been converted by force. The same thinking was applied to Christians, 2% of India’s population. Other major religions, including Buddhism and Sikhism, were considered more authentically Indian. Hedgewar was convinced that Hindu men had been emasculated by colonial rule, and he prescribed paramilitary training as an antidote. An admirer of European fascists, he borrowed their predilection for khaki uniforms, as well as their conviction that a group of highly disciplined men could transform a nation. He thought Gandhi and Nehru, who made efforts to protect the Muslim majority, were dangerous appeasers; the RSS largely sat out the freedom struggle.”
According to Wikipedia, “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Volunteer Organisation” or “National Patriotic Organisation”) is an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization that’s widely regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata (“Indian People’s”) Party. The RSS is the progenitor and leader of a large body of organizations called the Sangh Parivar (the “family of the RSS”), which has a presence in all facets of the Indian society. The RSS is the world’s largest voluntary organization and the largest NGO in the world, while the BJP is the largest political party in the world. Its initial impetus was to provide character training through Hindu discipline and to unite the Hindu community to form a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). The organization promotes the ideals of upholding Indian culture and values and spreads the ideology of Hindutva, the idea that India is an inherently Hindu nation. It’s established numerous schools, charities, and clubs to spread its ideological beliefs. The RSS was banned once during British rule, and three times by the post-independence Indian government, first in 1948 when an RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, then during a declared emergency (1975–77), and for a third time after the demolition of Babri Masjid [explained below] in 1992.”
Filkins tells us that Modi was recruited into the organization at the age of eight, and as an adult rose quickly in the ranks. “In 1987, he moved to the RSS’s political branch, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which at that time had only two seats in parliament. It needed an issue to attract new members, and found one in an obscure religious dispute over the Babri Masjid mosque built in the northern city of Ayodhya in 1528 by the Mughal emperor Babur. After independence, locals placed Hindu idols inside the mosque, convinced that it had been built on the site of a former Hindu tenple. A legend even grew that the god Ram, an avatar of Vishnu, had been born there. In September 1990, a senior BJP member named L.K. Advani began calling for the mosque to be destroyed so that a Hindu temple could take its place. On December 6, 1992, a crowd led by RSS members tore the mosque down, using axes and hammers.
The destruction of the mosque incited Hindu-Muslim riots across the country, with the biggest and bloodiest of them in Mumbai. The Ayyubs, a middle-class family, had to move to an all-Muslim slum, and when Rana enrolled in a predominantly Hindu school, she was called racist names. RSS membership soared, and by 1996 the BJP was the largest party in parliament. A psychologist who interviewed Modi at this time found him to be a puritanically rigid fascist who believed India was the target of a global conspiracy in which every Muslim in the country was complicit.
On February 27, 2002, a passenger train stopped in Godhra, a city in Gujarat. It was coming from Ayodhya, where many of the passengers had gone to visit the site where Babri Masjid had been destroyed ten years earlier, and to advocate for building a temple there. Most of them belonged to the religious wing of the RSS, the VHP. While the train sat in the station, the Hindu travelers and Muslims on the platform heckled one another. The conflict escalated when the train stalled as it tried to pull away, and someone, possibly a Muslim vendor with a stove, threw something on fire into one of the cars. 58 people suffocated or burned to death in the resulting conflagration. The state government allowed members of the VHP to parade the burned corpses through the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad, and enraged Hindus began attacking Muslims across the state. According to eyewitnesses, rioters cut open the bellies of pregnant women and killed their babies; others gang-raped women and girls. In at least one instance, a Muslim boy was forced to drink kerosene and swallow a lighted match. The most sinister aspect of the riots was that they appeared to have been largely planned and directed by the RSS. Teams of men, armed with clubs, guns, and swords, fanned out across the state’s Muslim enclaves, often carrying voter rolls and other official documents that led them to Muslim homes and shops.
The chief minister of the Gujarati government, Narendra Modi, summoned the Indian army, but held the soldiers in barracks as the violence spun out of control. In many areas, the police not only stood by, but, according to numerous human-rights groups, took part in the killing. The riots dragged on for nearly three months, and when they were over, 2,000 people were dead, and nearly 150,000 had been driven from their homes. The ethnic geography of Gujarat was transformed, with most of its Muslins crowded into slums, one of them, still home to 1,000 people, inside the Ahmedabad dump.
After the riots, Modi’s government did almost nothing to provide for the tens of thousands of Muslims forced from their homes; aid was supplied almost entirely by volunteers. Although some Hindu rioters were arrested, only a few dozen were ultimately convicted. In the following months, evidence surfaced that the leaders of the Hindu mobs had received explicit instructions from the government, and that Modi had ordered that the rioting be allowed to take place.
Modi’s accusers have been punished in various ways, including imprisonment and assassination. He became hugely popular in Gujarat, though elsewhere in India the BJP was losing ground. As a result, Modi’s hardline faction was able to seize the Party leadership. Modi also began to build a national reputation as a pro-business leader presiding over rapid economic development [this was actually faked], and big business began to support him. Many other Indians believe that all Muslims are terrorists, and support Modi for that reason.
After graduating from Sophia College in Mumbai with a degree in English literature, Ayyub started writing for a small English-langiuage magazine called Tehelka that had a reputation for tough investigations. In 2010, in a series of cover stories for Tehelka, she tied Modi’s closest adviser, Amit Shah, to illicit business, murder, and extortion. He and, eventually 38 others, including Gujarat’s top police official, were arrested. Even though evidence began to accumulate that Modi was the power behind all of it, he was increasingly mentioned as a candidate for national office.
In an effort to find out more, Ayyub went undercover, posing as an Indian-American student at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, visiting India to make a documentary about Gujarati’s prosperity under Modi. Using hidden cameras and microphones, she got a lot of damning evidence, but her magazine ultimately decided not to publish the story, and she was unable to get a publisher for her book on the subject. Modi seemed likely to run for and win the office of prime minister, and “no one wanted to alienate him.” He was helped by an overwhelming public perception that the Congress Party, in power for most of the past half century, had grown arrogant and corrupt. By contrast, Modi and his team were disciplined, focused, and responsive, and the BJP won a plurality of the popular vote.
Not long after Modi took office, the case in which his friend Amit Shah was implicated ground to a halt, and soon Shah was getting away with not showing up for hearings. When the judge ordered him to appear, the case was taken away from him. The new judge, Brijgopal Loya, told family and friends he was under ‘great pressure’ to dismiss the case, and that the chief justice of the Bombay High Court had offered him $16 million to scuttle it. He died not long after in mysterious circumstances, and an official investigation into his death, requested by his family, hasn’t taken place. A third judge, M.B. Gosavi, dismissed Shah’s case. By this time, Modi had made Shah president of the BJP and chairman of the governing coalition – the country’s second most powerful man.
Ayyub finally published her book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, herself in English. In it, she reveals that Modi is the official who made it possible for the RSS to parade the burned bodies of Hindu train passengers in Ahmedabad. Her source for this, Ashok Narayan, Gujarat’s Home Secretary during the riots, also said that the VHP had made preparations for large-scale attacks on the Muslim community, and had just been waiting for a pretext. He believed Modi was in on the plan from the beginning. Initially, the reaction to Ayyub’s book was muted. There was a reception in New Delhi, attended by most of India’s major political writers and editors, but no word about it in the papers the next day. Newspapers were also slow to review the book, but it took off on its own on Amazon, and the release of a Hindi edition in 2017 opened up a huge potential audience. To date, Ayyub says, Gujarat Files has sold 600,000 copies and been translated into 13 languages. Ayyub has also been invited to speak at the UN and at journalism conferences around the world. At the same time, the online/social media campaign against her has been horrific, including pronographic videos and death threats.
India’s female journalists are often subjected to an especially ugly form of abuse. The threats that Ayyub received were nearly identical to those sent to Gauri Lankesh, a journalist from the southern state of Karnataka. Like Ayyub, Lankesh had reported aggressively on Hindu nationalism and on violence against women and lower-caste people. ‘We were like sisters,’ Ayyub said. In September 2017, after Lankesh endured a prolonged campaign of online attacks, two men shot and killed her outside her home, fleeing on a motorbike.
This kind of abuse is supported by many BJP members and Modi supporters, who also post fake videos that increase Hindu hatred of Muslims and others. As Modi consolidated his hold on government, he used its power to silence mainstream media outlets as well. In 2016 his administration began moving to crush the television news network NDTV, one of India’s most credible news channels, by removing almost all government advertising, one of the network’s primary sources of revenue, and pressuring private companies to stop buying ads. Similarly, Karan Thapar, a TV journalist who’d asked Modi and BJP party members critical questions on air, was let go by his network following government pressure. The same thing happened to Bobby Ghosh, former editor of the Hindustan Times, one of India’s most respected newspapers, after he ran a series tracking violence against Muslims; and to Krishna Prasad, longtime editor of Outlook, after it revealed that the RSS was educating disadvantaged children in the state of Assam, then sending them to be indoctrinated in Hindu nationalist camps on the other side of the country. ‘So, many of the really good reporters in India are freelance,’ Ayyub said. Even news that ought to cause scandal has little effect. In June, the Business Standard reported that Modi’s government had been inflating GDP-growth figures by a factor of nearly two. The report prompted a public outcry, but Modi didn’t apologize, and no official was forced to resign.
Modi’s supporters get their news from Republic TV, which allows Modi and other Hindu nationalists to control the narrative, and features shouting matches and scathing insults of all but the most slavish Modi partisans.” Filkins says it makes Fox News look like the BBC, and gives examples of fake news stories it’s promoted.
“According to FactChecker, an organization that tracks communal violence by surveying media reports, there have been almost 300 hate crimes motivated by religion in India in the past decade, almost all of them since 2014 when Modi became prime minister. Hindu mobs have killed dozens of Muslim men, whose murders are rightly called ‘lynchings,’ evoking the terror that swept the American South after Reconstruction. When Muslims are lynched, Modi typically says nothing, and, since he rarely holds press conferences, he’s almost never asked about them. But his supporters often salute the killers. In June 2017, a Muslim man named Alimuddin Ansari, accused of selling cows for meat [cows are sacred to Hindus], was beaten to death in the village of Ramgarh. Eleven men, including a local leader of the BJP, were convicted of the murder, but last July they were freed, pending appeal. On their release, eight of them were draped in marigold garlands by Jayant Sinha, the BJP Minister for Civil Aviation.
In northern India, Hindu nationalists have whipped up panic around the idea that Muslim men, oversexed and fortified by beef, are engaging in a secret campaign to seduce Hindu women into marriage and prostitution. In many areas, any Muslim man seen with a Hindu woman risks being attacked.
As part of its Hindutva project, BJP leaders have been rewriting school textbooks across the country, erasing much of its Islamic history, including that of the Mughals, Muslim emperors who ruled the country for 200 years (1526 to 1720). They’ve also changed Mughal place names to ones that are Hindu-influenced.”
Ayyub and her photographer were released after an hour by Indian police in Kashmir. Though told to leave, they remained for several days interviewing locals who’d been jailed and tortured (many had also been killed or “disappeared”). “Indian antiterrorism law allows security forces to detain any Kashmiri for any reason, or no reason, for up to two years, and during the three decades that the province has been in open rebellion, tens of thousands of men have been disappeared, many never returning home.
I suggested that maybe it was time for Ayyub to leave India – that Muslims didn’t have a future there. ‘I’m not leaving,’ she said. ‘I have to stay. I’m going to write all this down and tell everyone what happened.’”
In a web-only In These Times article published 11-27-19, Chris Edelson says that Republican intransigence against impeaching Donald Trump constitutes a “constitutional crisis,” one we can only resolve by reforming or replacing our current constitution. His evidence: even though recent House Intelligence Committee hearings clearly showed that Trump had tried to extort a foreign country into sabotaging the upcoming US presidential election to his benefit, few (if any) Republicans in Congress will vote to impeach or remove him – “a corrupt president who rejects the very idea of legal limits on his power from office.
Our constitutional democracy is based on free and fair elections, individual rights, independent courts, and the rule of law – the idea that no one is above the law. Trump rejects all of these bedrock principles. He’s tried to undermine free and fair elections (most recently demonstrated in the Ukraine scandal); he threatens his critics with prosecution and lawsuits, disdaining the notion of First Amendment speech and press protections; he seeks to delegitimize judges who rule against his policies; and he rejects the idea that ordinary rules and laws apply to him and his allies, declaring (erroneously) that under Article II of the Constitution, ‘I have the right to do whatever I want as president.’
Trump thus poses an existential threat to our system of government. In a functioning system, Republicans would have already joined Democrats in taking action to remove Trump from office, just as they stood against Nixon in 1974.” In our failed system, however, Trump is likely to be able to run for a second term in 2020, and, given how many Americans still believe in his unfulfilled promises and take his lies as “facts,” he may continue on his disruptive and dictatorial merry way for four more years.
“The system is failing,” Edelson believes, “because Republicans are placing partisan concerns – their loyalty to Trump or fear of the political costs of defying him – ahead of their constitutional responsibilities. We need a new constitution, designed to strengthen our democracy against this type of threat. (No system is guaranteed to succeed, but a failed one demands replacement.)
Today’s Republican Party is an anti-democratic, authoritarian party that seeks to gain – and has gained – power without winning a majority of votes. To this end, it pushes voter suppression measures and takes advantage of structural defects in our system. Gerrymandered districts can allow the GOP to win a minority of the votes and still control the House. The Electoral College gave Trump the presidency 2016, even though he lost the popular vote, a feat he stands a realistic chance of repeating in 2020. And he enjoys majority support in a Senate that doesn’t reflect the political preferences of the majority of Americans, but instead allows a minority in sparsely populated states to wield power.
Making the electoral system more majoritarian could force the Republican Party to abandon its anti-democratic approach if it wishes to win. There’s no guaranteed way to prevent would-be authoritarians from gaining power – a popular authoritarian, for example, could win the popular vote. But Trump’s authoritarianism isn’t popular with Americans: his approval ratings are consistently in the low 40s.
A new constitution could address some of the anti-democratic features of our current system, including:
- abolishing the Electoral College;
- reforming or replacing a Senate that gives the 435,000 voters in Wyoming as many votes as the 17,524,000 in Texas;
- eliminating partisan gerrymandering;
- protecting the right to vote against voter suppression efforts; and
- dealing with the corrupting influence of our current campaign finance system.
A new constitution could also be aimed at shoring up the rule of law, including protecting the independence of the Department of Justice and replacing the current impeachment process with something capable of holding a lawless president to account. One idea to explore would be expressly giving the DOJ independent prosecutorial authority over the president. Another would be providing a process for triggering new presidential elections – say, based on a three-fifths vote in the House and Senate.
These kinds of changes aren’t politically plausible at the moment, but they need to be on our agenda, unless we’re willing to risk another attack on the system from a future president, assuming we survive the one mounted by Trump.”
My “quibble” with these kinds of liberal, “progressive” articles is that they never present a clear, realistic solution to the problems they uncover. Our political system isn’t going to someday magically become one in which constitutional reform, which has to be approved state by state, is possible. For most Americans the Constitution is sacred writ, and the idea of changing or replacing it would be met with horror. The idea that the sainted 18th-century “founders” of our system were part of an elite just like the one that rules our country today, and that they designed our political system precisely to avoid the democratic safeguards suggested above is what first needs to be brought out. (The founders equated democracy with “mob rule,” like that soon to be seen in the French Revolution.)
Avoiding dictatorship is hard, because there are always people or groups of people who want to take on that role, as well as people anxious to avoid the adult responsibility of thinking and acting for themselves and their groups’ interests. But we need to start somewhere – or multiple somewheres. In the long run, I think we’re going to need a strong global people’s movement for real and complete economic, political, and social democracy, already started in various places, or recent and lying dormant, like the Occupy Movement. In the short run, we could work to elect Bernie Sanders, the only current candidate for president really challenging the current anti-democratic system. It isn’t going to happen by magical, wishful thinking, like the weak conclusions of articles like the one quoted above, much as I appreciate its bringing the problem into such clear focus.
In an article entitled “Big Tech’s Big Defector” in the current (12-2-19) issue of the New Yorker magazine, Brian Barth reviews Roger McNamee’s 2019 book Zucked, which criticizes social media and the corporations (Facebook and Google) that support it (note that Facebook includes Instagram and Google includes YouTube), as well as merchandisers (especially Amazon) that track our every digital movement.
A corporate investor, McNamee started cashing in on the personal-computer revolution in the early ‘80s, adding investments in Amazon in the ‘90s, and Facebook in 2009 and 2010. Initially seeing the tech industry as “an experiment in creative and profitable problem-solving,” he started questioning its ethics in 2012. “‘These guys all wanted to be monopolists,’ he said recently. ‘They all want to be billionaires.’ McNamee was still convinced that Facebook was different, but in February 2016, shortly after he retired from full-time investing, he noticed posts that purported to support Bernie Sanders but seemed fishy. That spring, the social-media-fueled vitriol of the Brexit campaign seemed like further proof that Facebook was being exploited to sow division among voters – and that company executives had turned a blind eye. The more McNamee listened to Silicon Valley critics, the more alarmed he became: he learned that Facebook allowed facial-recognition software to identify users without their consent, and let advertisers discriminate against viewers. (Real-estate companies, for example, could exclude people of certain races from seeing their ads. Ten days before the presidential election, McNamee sent an e-mail to Zuckerberg, saying, ‘Facebook is enabling people to do harm. It has the power to stop the harm. What it currently lacks is an incentive to do so.’ Zuckerberg assured McNamee that Facebook was working to address the issues he’d raised, and dispatched a Facebook executive, Dan Rose, to talk to him. Rose told McNamee that Facebook was a platform, not a publisher, and couldn’t control all user behavior. This dismissiveness rattled McNamee. ‘These were my friends. I wanted to give them a chance to do the right thing. I wasn’t expecting them to go, “Oh, my God, stop everything,” but I did expect them to take it seriously. It was obvious they thought it was just a P.R. problem.’ He hasn’t spoken to Zuckerberg (who declined to comment for this article) since, and now refers to him as an ‘authoritarian.’
As Russian election interference became increasingly apparent, McNamee published a series of op-eds – in the Guardian, USA Today, Time, and elsewhere – arguing that the social-media business model thrived on divisive rhetoric: the more extreme the content, the more users shared it, and the more the algorithms amplified it, the more ad revenue was generated. As lawmakers prepared for hearings about Russian meddling in the fall of 2017, McNamee put together a curriculum for them, which he jokingly called ‘Internet Platforms 101.’ Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, had been focused on foreign manipulation of social media, but, in a meeting, McNamee urged him to consider a broader problem – how the platforms were sowing discord among Americans. ‘Roger was really ahead of the curve,’ Schiff said, ‘and time has borne out his warnings.’
McNamee’s zeal for diagnosing problems soon evolved into a mission to devise a solution. He argued that piecemeal regulation would never get to the root of the problem: mining users’ private data for profit. In February 2019, he published Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, part memoir, part manifesto. He then embarked on a book tour that’s turned into an ongoing public-shaming campaign.
When interviewed, McNamee rattled off a frighteningly long list of things he believes have been ‘Zucked’: ‘your vote,’ ‘your rights,’ ‘your privacy,’ ‘your life,’ ‘everything.’ So far, the public is less alarmed. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that half of Americans think the tech industry is having a positive impact on society. (This view is on the decline, however: in 2015, seven in ten thought so.) Earlier this year, Google and Amazon came in second and third in a survey of millennials’ favorite brands. In general, people are more concerned about the behavior of banks and pharmaceutical companies, and most Americans have yet to meaningfully change their habits as tech consumers.
Using digital profiles to predict and influence our behavior is at the heart of Google’s and Facebook’s business models. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, published earlier this year, Shoshana Zuboff, an emerita professor at Harvard Business School, warns of a ‘rogue mutation of capitalism,’ in which tech behemoths surveil humans, and eventually control them. McNamee speaks often about surveillance capitalism, and credits Zuboff with informing his views and bringing academic clout to the cause of Silicon Valley reform.
McNamee offers himself as a case study in how to be Google-free. He uses DuckDuckGo, a search engine that presents itself as a privacy-oriented alternative to Google, and has largely renounced Gmail, Maps, Docs, and the company’s other apps. He argues that Facebook should be used for staying in touch with friends and family rather than for political debates, which the platform alchemizes into screaming matches. ‘Outrage and fear are what drive their business model, so don’t engage with it,’ he told me. ‘I was as addicted as anybody, but we have the power to withdraw our attention.’ His life is made easier by the fact that he has relatively few complaints about Apple, which he praises for taking steps to protect user privacy. Since 2017, the company’s Safari browser has blocked third-party cookies, one ubiquitous tool for gleaning personal data. And its new Apple Card, unlike many other credit cards, including American Express and Mastercard, doesn’t share transaction histories with third parties. On the other hand, researchers have found that iPhones send a steady stream of personal data to third parties, much as the Android phones McNamee decries do. The company is also a pioneer in Bluetooth beacons, tiny devices used by retailers which glean data from phones as people move about in public spaces.
The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal is the quintessential example of how people can be turned into puppets. By collecting data from Facebook without user consent, the company was able to identify micro-populations of voters, then serve up customized ads encouraging them to vote for Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica obtained user data through duplicitous means, but similar data sets are widely and legally available; micro-targeting is commonplace on nearly all political campaigns. One of the most popular answers to this is that antitrust law should be used to take on Big Tech’s power. Elizabeth Warren, who’s met with McNamee and called him ‘one of the clearest voices’ on tech reform, has made the breakup of tech giants a central part of her campaign. Bernie Sanders has also pledged to press the antitrust issue if elected; Joe Biden has said that he’ll investigate it. In March, McNamee was invited to give a lecture at the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. In the following months, the D.O.J. and the F.T.C., along with various state legislatures and congressional committees, announced antitrust investigations aimed at Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple.
Several data-privacy bills circulating in Congress draw inspiration from California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which goes into effect on January 1st, and from Europe’s recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation. Such laws expand consumers’ control over their data and give them new legal tools for holding companies accountable. Many privacy advocates, including McNamee, argue that they’re critically flawed, however. Under G.D.P.R. rules, companies must ask users to opt in before their data can be processed by third parties, but, as soon as consumers consent, it’s more or less back to business as usual. And the rules are relatively loose when it comes to metadata. Even if the contents of a phone call are protected, the time of the call or the parties involved might not be. This is more revealing than it seems: as a memo by the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, a tech giant that doesn’t know your name might still ‘know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, then called an abortion clinic’s number.’
McNamee believes antitrust action will be effective only after comprehensive privacy reforms are enacted – otherwise, it’ll simply create smaller companies that behave in the same ways the big ones do now. ‘I want to prevent the data from getting into the system in the first place,’ he told me. The reform that would really have teeth, he says, is one that would ‘ban all third-party commerce in private information – financial information, location information, health information, browser history, and scanning of e-mail.’ Companies would be allowed to collect data needed for their services, but nothing else: a wellness app could store your height or weight but not the location of your gym – and none of this information could be shared with Facebook. The idea, McNamee explained, is that you could log a workout without then being bombarded by ads for nearby Zumba classes. Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, has pointed out that few of the current proposed policies would have any effect on whether a company can collect private data, only on how it can be used. Under McNamee’s plan, most of Google’s and Facebook’s revenues would disappear overnight, since nearly 90% of both companies’ money comes from ads. (Tech companies that don’t depend on targeted-ad revenue would remain relatively unaffected.)”
Barth concludes that the tech-reform movement can be hard to take seriously when some of its most prominent activists are also some of the most prominent tech-company shareholders,” and notes that “McNamee ends his talks by saying that the solution will be the ‘biggest business opportunity’ ever.”
In an 11-28-19 Guardian article entitled “There’s only one way to take on big tech: by reining in big money and big state,” Evgeny Morozov says that “the Warren-style critique of big tech rests on a powerful myth of domestic politics gone wrong.” He adds that “it’s easy to mistake Warren’s populist stance – let’s just break up the tech giants! – for some kind of leftism; but all it really is is a repetition of the (neo)liberal creed that well-policed, competitive markets yield prosperity. A Warren-style critique presents the rise of big tech as a series of policy errors by distracted or corrupt technocratic regulators, rather than the result of careful policy planning by Washington elites keen to use every tool possible to consolidate America’s global power. Focused almost entirely on domestic affairs, the Warren-style account rarely situates big tech alongside big money – Saudi Arabia, SoftBank and JP Morgan – and the big state – the Pentagon, with its massive contracting orders, and the NSA, with its massive spying apparatus. Positioned properly inside this troika, big tech emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of global financialized and militarized capitalism.
Not surprisingly, Warren’s account remains blind to the real reason American big tech isn’t smaller: big money and the big state need it to remain big — the former to make sure Wall Street can recoup its loss-making investments, the latter to ensure that America’s defense and intelligence needs are met swiftly, efficiently, and on the cheap. Positioned properly inside this troika, big tech emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of global financialized and militarized capitalism. Making big tech smaller, thus, can only be accomplished by trying to rein in the powers of Wall Street and the Pentagon and accepting that America should play a humble role in the global order. None of this is likely to happen, especially given American anxieties about China’s global ascent in all three dimensions – technology, finance, and military might. Smaller tech would mean America losing its ability to project its power geopolitically; and the odds that the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley – let alone the ‘America first’ Trump administration – would agree to this are nil. They’ll probably remain nil even if someone like Warren – whose foreign policy views are rather conventional, even by Washington standards – gets elected.
The powers of the nefarious troika of the big tech, big money, and big state could – and should be – contested. But this has to be done directly – by explicitly invoking and contesting the links between the financial, military, and technology dimensions of US power – and not indirectly, by discussing tendencies towards monopolization in digital capitalism. The first approach lends itself to a properly progressive political agenda; the second only to the utopian expectations that a new generation of technocrats might resolve some of the contradictions of global capitalism. In the absence of such a program, leftists should ditch the ‘big tech vs small tech’ dichotomy and speak of corporate vs non-corporate tech instead. The ownership – not just of companies but also of sensors, networks, data and services – is more important than the size of the key players. This doesn’t mean we should follow the likes of Warren in treating them as utilities, however; to do so would be to impose a ban on the kind of institutional imagination that the rise of digital technologies should have provoked – but still hasn’t – on the left.
The utilities model is problematic for many reasons, the chief of which is that data – the intimate residue of our intellectual, social and political life – unlike water, gas, and electricity, is suffused with meaning, lending itself to a multiplicity of interpretations and action plans. How this total ensemble of meanings and actions get assembled, by whom, and with what rationale isn’t a question that can be answered with any certainty in advance. The data ensemble can, as it does now, empower the advertising industry, feed virtual disinformation campaigns, and help banks extend more loans – i.e., ensure that the wheels of capitalism roll smoothly. It could also seed non-market behaviors grounded in solidarity and mutual respect, doing for the knowledge society what the welfare state once did for industrial society: create durable foundations for human flourishing. By shoving solutions to the problem of big tech into the institutional straitjacket of the utilities model, we’re giving up the opportunity to create a radically new institutional landscape – one which will de-commodify everyday life the same way the welfare state de-commodified working life almost a century earlier. This genuinely leftwing agenda doesn’t provide a simplistic, clean, but ultimately utopian answer along the lines of ‘small’ or ‘humane’ tech. But in calling out big tech as a function of American corporate power it at least gets the diagnosis right.”