Sunday, 26 February 2017

Brave New World: The Pill-Popping, Social Media Obsessed Dystopia We Live In

Image 20170222 6409 1189121by Tony D Sampson, University of East London, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/brave-new-world-the-pill-popping-social-media-obsessed-dystopia-we-live-in-72511

The Orwellian dystopia of Doublespeak is very much in vogue right now thanks to concerns over Trump’s use of “alternative facts”.

But alternative facts are just the tip of a dystopian iceberg that owes more to the soft brainwashing technologies of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than it does to 1984’s harsh Stalinist oppressions and propagandist trickery.

To grasp the Huxleyesque nature of current events we need see them as part of a culture increasingly pervaded by the ideas of neuroscience - what I have termed neuroculture.

The origins of neuroculture begin in early anatomical drawings and subsequent neuron doctrine in the late 1800s. This was the first time that the brain was understood as a discontinuous network of cells connected by what became known as synaptic gaps.

Initially, scientists assumed these gaps were connected by electrical charges, but later revealed the existence of neurochemical transmissions. Brain researchers went on to discover more about brain functionality and subsequently started to intervene in underlying chemical processes.

Interpretation of Cajal’s anatomy of a Purkinje neuron, by Dorota Piekorz.

On one hand, these chemical interventions point to possible inroads to understanding some crucial issues, relating to mental health, for example. But on the other, they warn of the potential of a looming dystopian future. Not, as we may think, defined by the forceful invasive probing of the brain in Room 101, but via much more subtle intermediations.

Soma

Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) is about a dystopian society that is not controlled by fear, but rendered docile by happiness. The mantra of this society is “everybody’s happy now”. As Alex Hern argues in The Guardian, Huxley presents a more relevant authoritarian dystopia to that of 1984, one that can still be “pleasant to live in for the vast majority, sparking little mass resistance”. The best dystopias are often dressed up as utopias.

Aldous Huxley in 1954. Wikimedia Commons

It is Huxley’s appeal to emotional conditioning that most significantly resonates with today’s dystopian neurocultures. He noted the clear advantages of sidestepping intellectual engagement and instead appealing to emotional suggestibility to guide intentions and subdue nonconformity.

As such, to achieve its goal, the society of Brave New World combines two central modes of control. First, the widespread use of the joy-inducing pharmaceutical, Soma, and second, a hypnotic media propaganda machine that works less on reason than it does through “feely” encounters.

Today’s neurocultures correspond to these technologies in conspicuous ways. To begin with, the rise of neuro-pharmaceuticals, like Prozac, have drawn attention to a growing societal need for self-medicated happiness. But equally alarming is the rise in prescriptions for ADHD treatments, like Ritalin, which control attention while simultaneously subduing difficult behaviour. The ADHD child’s mental state is a kind of paradoxical docile attentiveness.

The College of Emotional Engineering

Comparisons can also be made between Huxley’s College of Emotional Engineering and contemporary social media. In his book, the college is an important academic institution found in the same building as the Bureaux of Propaganda, with a unique focus on emotional suggestibility. This is where the feely scenarios, emotional slogans and hypnopedic rhymes are written. This kind of propaganda is for mass media consumption, but today’s emotional engineering takes place in far more intimate and contagious arenas of social media.

For example, in 2014, Facebook took part in an experiment designed to make positive and negative emotions go viral. Researchers manipulated the news feeds of over 600,000 users in an attempt to make them pass on positive and negative emotions to others in their network.

Streamlining emotions. rvlsoft / Shutterstock.com

The idea that social media acts as a vector for both positive and negative emotional contagions might help us to rethink Trump’s ability to seemingly tap into certain negative feelings of disillusioned US voters. Certainly, the contagion of fake news is typically a poisonous concoction of fear and hate. But much of the populist appeal of Trump (and Brexit) has perhaps played on more joyful encounters with celebrity politicians than those experienced with the dry intellectual elites of conventional politics.

Roses or orchids?

The pervasiveness of today’s neuroculture started with the neuroscientific emotional turn in the 1990s. Scientists realised that emotions are not distinct from pure reason, but enmeshed in the very networks of cognition. The way we think and behave is now assumed to be greatly determined by how we feel.

The seismic influence of this profound shift has extended beyond science to economic theories concerned with the neurochemicals that are supposed to affect decision making processes. It also underpins new models of consumer choice focused on the “buying brain”.

The advent of neuroeconomics, followed by neuromarketing, has resulted in further spin-offs in product design and branding informed by emotional brain processing. The consumer experience of a brand is now measured according to the frequency of brainwaves correlated with certain attentive and emotional states.

Perhaps there’s nothing new in neuroculture. Advertisers have been trying to infect feelings since the advent of advertisements. Similarly, politicians have been kissing babies for affect since the age of the crowd. Maybe my idea of neuroculture is an example of what has been cynically termed neuro-speculation. But in an age hastened by social media and self-medication, there is a dystopic intensification of infected and manipulated feelings that cannot be ignored.

Not everyone agreed with Huxley’s predictions of a neuroscientific dictatorship. One literary critic once compared him to a rabbit going down a hole only to think all the world was dark.

But it was the attention he received from scientists that should alert us to the profundity of his dystopia. In particular, the 20th century scientist Joseph Needham argued that scientific knowledge is not immune to political interferences. Needham called Huxley’s Brave New World an “orchid garden” - a demonstration that scientific knowledge does not always lead to a bed of roses. Huxley, he noted, helps us to “see clearly what lies at the far end of certain inviting paths”.

Tony D Sampson, Reader in Digital Culture and Communication, University of East London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

How a Ruthless Network of Super-Rich Ideologues Killed Choice and Destroyed People’s Faith in Politics: Neoliberalism - The Deep Story That Lies Beneath Donald Trump’s Triumph

English: GFDL picture of F.A. Hayek to replace...
F.A. Hayek, Mises Institute (Wikipedia)
by George Monbiot, Evonomics: http://evonomics.com/ruthless-network-super-rich-ideologues-killed-choice-destroyed-peoples-faith-politics/

The events that led to Donald Trump’s election started in England in 1975.

At a meeting a few months after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, one of her colleagues, or so the story goes, was explaining what he saw as the core beliefs of conservatism. She snapped open her handbag, pulled out a dog-eared book, and slammed it on the table. “This is what we believe,” she said. A political revolution that would sweep the world had begun.

The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket.

The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It saw competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impeded this process, such as significant tax, regulation, trade union activity or state provision, was counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs would create the wealth that would trickle down to everyone.

This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending themselves against democracy. Not every aspect of the neoliberal programme advanced their interests. Hayek, it seems, set out to close the gap.

He begins the book by advancing the narrowest possible conception of liberty: an absence of coercion. He rejects such notions as political freedom, universal rights, human equality and the distribution of wealth, all of which, by restricting the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful, intrude on the absolute freedom from coercion he demands.

Democracy, by contrast, “is not an ultimate or absolute value”. In fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take.

He justifies this position by creating a heroic narrative of extreme wealth. He conflates the economic elite, spending their money in new ways, with philosophical and scientific pioneers. Just as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable, without constraint by public interest or public opinion.

The ultra rich are “scouts”, “experimenting with new styles of living”, who blaze the trails that the rest of society will follow. The progress of society depends on the liberty of these “independents” to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore, arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limit to the rents they can charge.

Inherited wealth is more socially useful than earned wealth: “the idle rich”, who don’t have to work for their money, can devote themselves to influencing “fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs”. Even when they seem to be spending money on nothing but “aimless display”, they are in fact acting as society’s vanguard.

Hayek softened his opposition to monopolies and hardened his opposition to trade unions. He lambasted progressive taxation and attempts by the state to raise the general welfare of citizens. He insisted that there is “an overwhelming case against a free health service for all” and dismissed the conservation of natural resources. It should come as no surprise to those who follow such matters that he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics.

By the time Thatcher slammed his book on the table, a lively network of thinktanks, lobbyists and academics promoting Hayek’s doctrines had been established on both sides of the Atlantic, abundantly financed by some of the world’s richest people and businesses, including DuPont, General Electric, the Coors brewing company, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Lawrence Fertig, the William Volker Fund and the Earhart Foundation. Using psychology and linguistics to brilliant effect, the thinkers these people sponsored found the words and arguments required to turn Hayek’s anthem to the elite into a plausible political programme.

Thatcherism and Reaganism were not ideologies in their own right: they were just two faces of neoliberalism. Their massive tax cuts for the rich, crushing of trade unions, reduction in public housing, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services were all proposed by Hayek and his disciples. But the real triumph of this network was not its capture of the right, but its colonisation of parties that once stood for everything Hayek detested.

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did not possess a narrative of their own. Rather than develop a new political story, they thought it was sufficient to triangulate. In other words, they extracted a few elements of what their parties had once believed, mixed them with elements of what their opponents believed, and developed from this unlikely combination a “third way”.

It was inevitable that the blazing, insurrectionary confidence of neoliberalism would exert a stronger gravitational pull than the dying star of social democracy. Hayek’s triumph could be witnessed everywhere from Blair’s expansion of the private finance initiative to Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which had regulated the financial sector. For all his grace and touch, Barack Obama, who didn’t possess a narrative either (except “hope”), was slowly reeled in by those who owned the means of persuasion.

As I warned in April, the result is first disempowerment then disenfranchisement. If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate. Politics becomes irrelevant to people’s lives; debate is reduced to the jabber of a remote elite. The disenfranchised turn instead to a virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation. The man who sank Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency was not Donald Trump. It was her husband.

The paradoxical result is that the backlash against neoliberalism’s crushing of political choice has elevated just the kind of man that Hayek worshipped. Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow.

The neoliberal thinktankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want. The likely result is the demolition of our remaining decencies, beginning with the agreement to limit global warming.

Those who tell the stories run the world. Politics has failed through a lack of competing narratives. The key task now is to tell a new story of what it is to be a human in the 21st century. It must be as appealing to some who have voted for Trump and Ukip as it is to the supporters of Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.

A few of us have been working on this, and can discern what may be the beginning of a story. It’s too early to say much yet, but at its core is the recognition that - as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear - human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature.

Hayek told us who we are, and he was wrong. Our first step is to reclaim our humanity.

Originally published here at the Guardian.

The Illusion of Community

4 types of community by A Williamson
by Dave Pollard, How to Save the World: http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2017/02/18/the-illusion-of-community

Much is being written these days, in political, social, business and collapsnik circles, among others, about community. Most of it assumes that there is such a thing.

A few years ago I wrote a response to Aaron Williamson’s then-new model of community and identity, diagrammed above.

Aaron acknowledged that “a community or potential community is a complex system” and that “community itself is an emergent quality - community, per se, does not exist; it is a perceived connection between a group of people based on overlaps of intentidentity, interest and experience”. These four aspects of our ‘selves’ are shown as green circles, above. Elements of each aspect are shown in orange circles.

In this model, overlaps between ‘selves’ can result in the emergence of different types of community:
  • If the overlap is mainly common interests, it will emerge as a Community of Interest. Learning and recreational communities are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common capacities, it will emerge as a Community of Practice. Co-workers, collaborators and alumni communities are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common intent, it will emerge as an Intentional Community or Movement. Project teams, various communal living groups and activist groups are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common identity, it will emerge as a Tribe. Partnerships, love/family relationships, gangs and cohabitants are often of this type.
At the time I wrote “You cannot create community, all you can do is try to create or influence conditions in such a way that the community self-creates (self-forms, self-organizes and self-manages) [and emerges] in a healthier, more sustainable and resilient way.” I identified what I thought were 8 key qualities of such healthy communities and their members: Effective processes for invitation, facilitation, and the building of members’ capacities, strong collective processes, and members’ individual skills of self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-caring, attention and appreciation.

It’s hard to find good enduring examples of such communities. The late, great Joe Bageant taught me that “community is born of necessity”. He showed me what that meant by telling me the story of the isolated village of Hopkins, Belize (while I was visiting him there).

Hopkins was formed when a group of slave ships ran aground in a storm 300 years ago, and the survivors escaped and made their way up the Caribbean coast and created a new community there, one which thrived without intervention until it was wrecked just in the last generation by foreigners through trawler overfishing of the Gulf, and the imposition of land title laws (and fences, and walls) on their ‘free’ indigenous common land.

Why did this community succeed for so long? Because the escapees had no choice but to make it succeed; it was life-and-death. This is the ultimatum the collapse of our civilization’s systems and culture will soon present us all with, as possibly two billion climate refugees in a Great Migration bring about the ultimate clash of cultures and the final demise of all of our civilization’s systems.

This is why few of what we would like to call communities today, are actually that: It’s too easy for most to just pick up and leave when they don’t like the people, processes or circumstances of their adopted, emergent communities. There is no necessity holding us together when things get uncomfortable, no requirement to live with and love neighbours we don’t particularly like.

We seek community now for a number of non-essential reasons driven by individual wants and ambitions: attention and appreciation, collaboration on projects, movements and enterprises where we share goals, skills, needs or passions, as well as for protection from perceived threats.

The people I met in Hopkins sometimes sought these things, but they weren’t what created or held together the community. And as that community is being destroyed from outside pressures (the loss of their primary food source and their land), what brought and kept them together won’t help them withstand its demise. To anyone who’s studied indigenous cultures, it’s an old story.

So we look for others with whom to form community, individually - online in social media and virtual worlds, in dating services, in ‘meetup’ groups, in clubs, in social organizations. But most of us drift in and out of such groups, dissatisfied with their offerings, mourning their inability to find what we really want - existential connection. All that expectation is loaded up on the shoulders of spouses, governments and employers to fill the existential gap, which they can’t hope to deliver.

The traditional places where people seeking community congregated - churches, higher learning institutions, guilds, cooperatives etc, are in disarray, their memberships falling. This is partly because we’ve become too picky about what we want from so-called community organizations. We want them to cater to our individual wants and needs, and their ‘commercial’ replacements assert that they offer that, though they do not.

So what is this ‘existential connection’ that is lacking in modern ‘communities’? At its heart, I think it is connection to place and to all other life on the planet, which most of us have become disconnected, even dissociated from. We all ‘know’ somehow that living naturally is communal, connected, mutual, integral, unselfish, and loving - the very opposite of individual and isolated and competitive and the ‘optimizing of self-interest’ that underlies our entire modern dysfunctional and massively destructive economic systems.

When I go to meetups of new groups now, I often find such a sense of absolute desperation for community (of all four types), that when they achieve even the brief illusion of that integral sense of community, many present will start to cry in unrestrained (and infectious) appreciation and joy. They will swear to have made vital lifelong connections. But a month later those apparent connections will have vanished. Desperation is not yet necessity. We return to our fragmented, community-less lives.

If you’ve been reading my stuff in the last few years, you’ll know I no longer proffer any ‘solutions’. This predicament is endemic to our modern, global, dog-eat-dog, utterly individualistic culture, a culture that has crushed all of the remaining sensible ones. The system has to fall before we will once again learn what it means to know the necessity of living in community, of being community. There is no cure, no ‘fix’ for Civilization Disease, the disease of disconnection, fear and antipathy.

The problem with systems, as I’ve explained before, is that they don’t really exist. So while in a way the ‘system’ is the problem (it’s associated with our incapacity to reconnect and hence rediscover true community), it’s actually just a label our pattern-seeking brains use to try to understand why things are the way they are.

Yet our minds, our ‘selves’ that supposedly sit at the centre of our communities (as depicted in the chart above) are themselves just labels, concepts, pattern-making, attempts to make sense of what ‘we’ cannot hope to understand (Aaron, as a non-dualist, hints at this, though perhaps wisely he doesn’t really get into it in his writings aimed at business clients who are likely addicted to these illusions, and fiercely ‘self’- and ‘system’-driven.

Some day, in a world probably millennia hence with many fewer human creatures, there will likely once again be real community everywhere on what’s left of our planet. But they will not be communities of interest, practice, experience, capacity or even identity.

The ‘selves’ in the centre of Aaron’s model will not exist. There will be no need for these parochial communities, or the selves that cohere them. There will be community of necessity, delight and wonder, non-exclusionary, embracing all life, free from self. There will be no choice. In the meantime, there is nothing to be done. One day, everything will be free.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Living Through the Greek Crisis: An Anthropologist Reports from Thessaly

Trikala Old Town. Daniel M Knight, CC BY-ND
by Daniel M. Knight, University of St Andrews, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/living-through-the-greek-crisis-an-anthropologist-reports-from-thessaly-73091

The prospect of another Greek crisis could be back on the cards if things do not go to plan at an upcoming meeting of European finance ministers on February 20.

With a €10.3 billion loan repayment due in July, the meeting is seen as critical for once again preventing the possibility of a Greek default and potential exit from the eurozone.

But while the international media returns its lens to Greece, it’s worth considering that for people in Greece, the crisis has never subsided. In fact, the consequences of austerity are getting more painful by the day. My work in the central mainland captures local experiences of this national and international crisis.

Since 2003, I have conducted field research in Trikala, a town of 80,000 inhabitants located on the agricultural plains of Thessaly in mainland Greece. Famous for the great landed estates of the Ottoman era, the region was incorporated into the modern Greek state in 1881 and is still known as the country’s “bread basket”.

Before the financial crisis struck, you could breathe the overwhelming air of prosperity on the bustling streets of Trikala. The expanding construction industry, a buoyant public sector, and secure agricultural markets supported by EU initiatives and eurozone membership represented 30 years of almost uninterrupted socioeconomic prosperity. Nobody could have imagined the horrendous consequences of the full-blown economic meltdown that would explode onto the scene in 2009.

It was in October 2009, in the context of global economic recession, that the government “discovered” unsustainable levels of debt and an insurmountable budget deficit. Since then, Greece has received €326 billion of bailout money from the European Central Bank, European Commission and the International Monetary Fund in return for stringent austerity measures.

An everyday crisis

Athens-centric media coverage has portrayed the consequences of austerity primarily through images of mass protests, the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party, and the struggle to accommodate refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. Athens is the centre of political and economic power and home to approximately half of Greece’s population so this focus on the metropolis is understandable.

But it means that the subtleties of living with crisis everyday have been overlooked in favour of dramatic headlines. In Trikala, people grapple with the everyday tasks of heating their homes, putting food on the table, supporting their families, and maintaining social status. They poignantly discuss their fears of history repeating itself, of neo-colonialism, occupation, and poisoned futures.

Witnessing an array of new taxes, pension cuts and soaring unemployment, the dozens of people I’ve interviewed often delve straight into the vaults of history to make sense of life in austerity Greece. The fear of returning to times of hunger, as experienced in the Great Famine during World War II, for example, is common. And an EU scheme aimed at decreasing national debt by placing solar panels on agricultural land is locally perceived as a return to an era of German or Ottoman occupation.

I am regularly told that “history is repeating itself”, “time is standing still”, and “we are being thrown back to previous times of suffering and poverty”. This all adds to the sense of temporal vertigo experienced in Trikala today - confusion as to where and when people belong on the timeline of social progress that was once promised as a birthright in neoliberal Europe. People describe feeling “dizzy” and “nauseous” with the crisis.

Feelings of occupation

The way that energy policy has been managed since the economic crisis is a key area that people feel particularly vexed about. Since 2011, solar energy has been heralded by the Greek government and the European Union as a means to repay national debt. From home installations to developments on agricultural land and large solar parks, a solar program has been rolled out across the region.

But, despite its significant uptake, the energy produced rarely services the local community. Instead it is used in Greek urban centres, with long-term plans to export to Germany. This means it is little more than a new extractive economy.

Solar panels are a sign of the economic dysfunction. Daniel M Knight, CC BY-ND

Because people could no longer afford high petrol prices to fuel their central heating systems and there is no mains gas in the town, the winters of 2012–2016 witnessed a return en-masse to wood-burning open fires and stoves last popular during the 1970s. Thick smog now engulfs Greek towns in this region, as people burn whatever they can, including old varnished furniture, shoes and clothes, and unsuitable firewood. Open fires have turned into a national health and environmental hazard, resulting in repeated government appeals for people to revert to petrol heating.

Thus, two starkly different energy sources - high-tech solar panels and open wood-burning fires - have become highly visible symbols of the economic crisis. One is associated with clean, green energy, futuristic sustainability, ultra-modernity, and international political energy consensus. The other conjures images of pre-modern unsustainability, pollution, poverty, and a return to peasantry status. Both are symptomatic of how people negotiate the fiscal austerity measures, arousing notions of neo-colonialism and occupation.

What future?

One question I am often asked by locals is: “When will it end?” It is difficult for people to see beyond ever-increasing taxes, pay cuts and government failures. Exhaustion after seven years of crisis, apparently without respite anytime soon, has defeated their ability to imagine a better future. Feelings of resignation and helplessness are expressed by both younger and older generations. But while the older ones know they will not be around to live the post-crisis future, exhausted young people are full of distrust, contempt and apathy.

Successive governments have promised growth and emergence from crisis - promises that have turned out to be hollow. My friend Stella, a shopkeeper and mother of two teenage boys in Trikala, sums up the mood: “Bureaucrats and politicians in Berlin and Brussels will decide whether I have a future or not. They will decide if I live or die.” That’s what is on the cards at the meeting of European finance ministers, not simply a matter of negotiating debt repayments - their decisions will bring us one step closer to knowing where the future lies.

Daniel M. Knight, Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.