Wednesday, 29 March 2017

49. Disconnection and depolitisation

If Foucault spoke about how the prison design with the use of a panopticon revealed the disciplinary model that would be applied in other institutions, the book about casino design "Addiction by design" by prof Natasha Dow Schüll might make us think about a new disciplinary tool: disconnection.

Casinos have been evolving. They are being purposefully designed with no windows, in cocoon-like spaces,  no straight lines or right angles (which would force you to stop and make a decision), with no clocks, all of which create an environment where people get lost in time and space. There are no references to connect us to the now. They are designed to create dependence, to maximise time on the slotting machines (time on device - TOD), to offer an engaging experience with no sudden or abrupt loss/win but rather with a progressive milking, programmed with a schedule of reinforcement, low volatility and sensorial stimuli that produces a sense of flow. Prof Dow Schüll explains that gamblers refer to this state as "the zone", and she describes it as "a dissociative trance-like state in which they are so focused in playing the game that things like daily worries, social pressures even bodily awareness fade away". They are escaping decision-making and the volatility that surrounds them. This experience changes the common understanding of gambling as a thrill seeking sort of quest, a "getting something from nothing", to a quest where gamblers are seeking nothingness itself. "You are not really there. You are with the machine and that's all you are with" explained a gambler, some sort of eternal present, an immortal death. The players who experience this sensation, come back and become regular customers. And even though designers of these slotting machines do not act like Machiavellian masterminds, by focusing on the purpose of simply seeking revenue maximisation, through experimentation and mathematics... they end up being a bit Machiavellian. Habit forming and ritual establishment (deeply unconscious behaviours) are the most effective ways to minimise volatility in the income for any company. Ironically, in the gambling industry this plan to minimise volatility by creating dependence requires a dissociative state of mind which disregards the effect it is producing to its customers.

In a more recent interview, Prof Dow Schüll explains that there are so many casinos in the US that people stand 30 minutes away of one, and that states have been seeking for this route to increase their own revenues instead of direct taxation, that eventually accounts for a tax on the poor.
Beyond that, this mechanism to disconnect people from reality, from the material world, from the here and now, that includes a sort of soothed exploitation, ends up de-sensitising and even more depolitising people. This model of offering flow states is present in consoles, phones and tablets and even, at some level, when we find some spiritual gurus that guide us through a meditation claiming that all the work is individual and is done at a spiritual level, but then adding that we should not engage in politics or worry about the news because it is some sort of dense energy that contaminate our aura, our vibe, our sense of flow. Meditation that should help us gain clarity to act, to transform, to connect with the other to collaborate, is used instead to sooth, to calm and in many cases to induce us to accept reality as it is and remain passive (or in the game). As long as our energy is positive, positive things will happen, no need to act.To remain connected with the positive energy, disconnection from reality is prescribed. It is not my intention, however, to decry spirituality or religion. In fact there a lot of humble leaders that don't embark in promises of future paradises or wonderful awakenings, but rather guide people to engage. But the other side is also present and it is nothing new, as religion was famously denounced by Marx as the opiate of the people. He was not alone in this reflection, other quotes on the subject are "We have used the Bible as if it were a mere special constable's hand book, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded, a mere book to keep the poor in order.", Charles Kingsley (replace the Bible with Mindfulness here as an exercise) or "Their so-called religion works simply as an opiate—stimulating; numbing; breastfeeding pain from weakness", Novalis; "Welcome be a religion that pours into the bitter chalice of the suffering human species some sweet, soporific drops of spiritual opium, some drops of love, hope and faith." Heinrich Heine. Coincidentally, opium itself and pain killers are a talked-about topic that play a role in this disconnection game.

False uterus

A false uterus have particular characteristics. We are alone in this spaces, we are fed with something that we accept, that is predictable or at least stable. Whether we are in a filter bubble in social media, confirming how right we are with a particular news channel, drugged, charmed by candy crush or in front of a slotting machine, we remain physically disconnected from others. Some of these uterusi are built for us, but we too built walls wishing not to be disturbed by whatever is happening in the word (which -to be fair- is constantly curated to become more emotionally unbearable), "it is too much", "I don't want to vote any more". We expect these walls will protect our innocence, a sense of "I don't know" or even "I didn't know" and "It had nothing to do with me" (for any reason, I write these lines thinking of the role of the mother in John Boyne's "The Boy with the striped pyjamas"). This innocence, however, might not be guilty but it is not innocent either.

Connecting with reality and with the other is messy indeed: we cannot have a perfectly curated environment, we cannot be floating Buddhas, we have negative emotions, we make bad decisions. That's why there is something more than unconditional love (which is supposed to be the ultimate power) that we need in order to act together, to engage in any sort of relationship, in social change, to make a couple work, a job and even to have children: commitment. It is probably easier to 'unconditionally' love someone from the distance, that is to say, under the sole condition that they are a bit far away. But it is only through commitment that we decide to put our body, to walk through the mud together, to get dirty, to change nappies and to get transformed in the journey.

Idealising disconnection

In the following video, several economists discuss the lack of History knowledge in the economics profession (with proposition and opposition presentations). Dr Ha-Joon Chan (min 29 onwards) compares it with the series TV hit, the Big Bang Theory, where there is a clear hierarchy: the most detached from reality, the highest it belongs in the academic hierarchy, explaining that the Theoretical physicist (Sheldon) belongs to this highest tier, followed by the experimental physicist (Leonard) and then by the Engineer from MIT (Howard) who belongs to the lowest of ranks. But then continues to highlight that without the context of History, economics cannot be properly understood. He actually says that it should be taken extremely seriously as a theory of economics can kill millions and ruin many people's lives.

Even if economics is not the only discipline where this disconnection with reality is -at some level- idealised, and this is not the first moment in history that we discuss this topic, I found it to be an interesting material.

In the following video (that even if it is old is completely worth watching), around min 14 Jon Ronson speaks about psychopaths in society and how psychopathic traits (including being detached, lack of empathy, victim blaming, etc) are rewarded. Slavoj Zizek adds his comments on Brian Victoria's book, Zen at war, on how Buddhist detachment can be used to create soldiers that detach themselves from very cruel actions.

An Anti-feminist and anti-patriarchal mindset: between soothed dependence and violent extremism

Even if saying that a system can be anti-feminist and anti-patriarchal seems like a provocation, it is not. In the logic in which I write this blog, I suggest we go through the matriarchal and then a patriarchal stage of development in our lives and at social level and that these processes need to be understood. The matriarchy is simply a foundation-building stage which gives us basic tools, the basic building blocks for a psyche, including the most basic recognition of existence, "I am fed, therefore I live", "I am seen, therefore I exist", "I am loved, therefore I am lovable", "I am heard, therefore I have a voice" etc. All of this, whilst we are still dependent and remain highly ignorant of the world. In fact, this foundation building, this learning process, starts in the womb.

With all its shadows and the costs it had historically on women, children and minorities, the patriarchal drive is (or should be) an emancipatory impulse. It is the impulse to become independent, to get out of the comfort of Eden to earn our bread, to get out of the subjugation of Egypt and walk towards a promised land -which the patriarch does not reach-, the land we should "occupy", a place where we can affect the world; and at a personal level (whether our childhood was Eden or Egypt), to get out of the world of mum when is due. It was the impulse of modernity to develop science and stop suffering famines -being dependent on the weather-, or fight illnesses -being dependent on the "will of God" or circumstance-.
Even if it has some lights, the patriarchy has destructively oversimplified the issue of dependency. It decided that dependency is bad and therefore should be cut as soon as possible, as abruptly as possible, which ended up causing trauma and -some feminist would argue- the oedipus complex. This mindset has been seen in many different areas of life. At the core, in trying to minimise the physical contact between mother and child. This first abrupt disconnection is key, because all subsequent disconnections are trying to recreate and somehow repair this stage. Some feminists suggest that baptism, that originally was performed in adults, came to represent a sort of re-birth into the patriarchy that then had to happen in very early infancy, in a way symbolising this urgency to separate the baby from the mother. In a different subject, but with some commonalities studies about post-cult trauma syndrome, it is now argued that what causes the trauma is the way the intervention to liberate people from cults is conducted, not the experience of being in a cult itself or the act of leaving; it argues that studies in the past focused only in people who were removed forcibly from cults and did not studied people leaving it in other ways. This second group of people were found to register the experience as a weird moment in their lives but do not bear the weight of trauma. When and how dependency is cut is important; how involved the individual is in this process, is important too.

Secondly, the patriarchal drive shows a direction forward with the prohibition to go back to the dependent state, to go back in time, to get lost in this nothingness, in a false uterus, to follow the death drive. Even though in principle is a very positive aspect, in this prohibition, everything maternal was demonised both in men and women (including a range of emotions and mechanisms related to a maternal function: nurturing, negativity processing, etc), and the bodies of women were "occupied" trying to impose control over the behaviour of women not only in terms of reproduction (both to reproduce and have multiple children and to control inheritance by ensuring fatherhood) but also in the contact and relationship they establish with their children which became an area of heavy regulation. Women became patriarchal mothers, cold, distant or over-controlling, affecting the foundation stage I mentioned before, ensuring the production of a chain of angry-hungry patriarchal mothers. Almost the perfect crime.
This had an effect on men too. Men are left incomplete, with vital functions such as nurturing and negativity processing externalised, and need to keep "a cow well tied up to be able to milk it" and a "legitimate" depository of their negativity (patriarchal men are not violent against their bosses, only with someone they consider a "legitimate target", someone with a lower hierarchical status).

From the religion evolution point of view, the patriarchy should've ended with Christianity, where motherhood had a not-demonised-representative, men were stopped from depositing their negativity onto Mary Magdalene, and the Son died with a message of assuming responsibility (carrying the cross) and stop expecting a father to come to the rescue, a father that dies with his resurrection suggesting that the crime is not perfect, that there is something that violence cannot kill. Of course this is the ultimate disobedience. Islam, that came afterwards, directly rewrote the story of Eden, changing some details: the guilt was not longer Eva's alone, and God is not referred to as a father any more. Sometimes it feels we are quite slow...

In any case, the death of the father, does not mean however, the disappearance of the disciplinary entity, it has just been internalised. It is not the "end of history" or the end of the story: that fact poses new challenges. Sometimes it is positive, when the matriarchal stage was positive enough and the emotional foundations are strong, but when this matriarchal stage was not respected, "killing the father" could mean the appearance of leaderless extreme movements (eg neo-nazism, ISIS etc).

Feminism was indeed a step forward, an emancipatory movement for women. It did not take women back to a dependent state with nature, nor it fought to "lose all control over the uterus", but rather to "own" the control. To be able to occupy their own bodies. To be connected and sovereign. It represented a move to integrate the maternal and paternal role by and in women. Recognition and emancipation. This occupation of the body should not only happen in terms of owning the control of reproduction, but also in reclaiming sovereignty in motherhood, a subject that feminism is still struggling with. But beyond the missing battles, there is an attempt of appropriation of feminism, that tries to make women join the game as it is, without trying to change it, maybe promising some marginal gains. It tries to make a label, a brand out of feminism and tries to stop feminism from taking on the real big battles, like the economy and the production of money.

Going back to the first question: how can we describe a political strategy that creates and fosters dependence on mechanisms of soothed extraction, of slow milking? a Political status quo where there is chronic high youth unemployment (up to 50% in several developed EU economies) keeping youngsters in a dependent state, unable to become adults, to have a house, to receive an income and be economical independent? or ensures they enter adulthood in debt (US, UK)? An economic system that is increasingly devaluing labour and work, pushing it towards the lowest paid workers in foreign countries (exposing workers to compete even with unpaid forced labour from prison systems)? A system that does not discuss fully the political implications of having increasingly larger proportion of tax-paying non-voting immigrants -ie formally outside of the political system- in the labour force? A political system that still relies on women working in some sort of shadow economy?

It is a system that is both anti-feminist and anti-patriarchal (in its emancipatory sense) at the same time, that feeds from bottom up, to then disconnect capital from countries and take it to fiscal havens or recycle it in the finance sector. At the end, when soft mediums don't work any more, the system turns easily into something more violent, more brutal, exploiting and even discarding those who oppose. Sometimes they raise with a "popular" speech, creating this idea of "we, the people", but without the emancipatory drive, on the contrary, with the promise of going back, follow the death drive. It is a system that somehow sees the economy very similarly to a company evaluating different business units or brands in a very hierarchical way. An example is the Boston Consulting Group chart, where there are Stars, who deliver growth and receive investment, Dogs -unstable and therefore disposable, question marks that need to be worked out to see if they are stars or not, and then the Milk cows, the cash providers, that are not seen as a unit with potential, therefore no investment beyond minimal maintenance will be committed, while it will be extracted from every drop of milk it can deliver. If and when society is looked at with these glasses, that are even reinforced with harsh judgements on the poor, little investment goes to the sectors that need more support. This thinking is not surprising when more CEOs and disconnected elites occupy the body of government.

THE moment to connect

US dependence on foreign oil has declined significantly
source: Business Insider
This is THE moment to connect. Brexit, Trump, the elections in France, trade agreements being re-discussed and rewritten de facto deciding how work will be distributed globally and affecting how work will be distributed and structured internally, nuclear tensions, climate change, the US energy revolution and what it means in terms of geopolitics, fake news, new political parties, etc, etc. This is the time where structural changes are being fought but there is a model that is anti-feminist and anti-patriarchal (in its emancipatory sense) that will try to gain more territory. If the end of history happened some time in the nineties, then this must be the beginning of a new history. A history we must write together.


PS: Aatif Sulleyman for The Independent: The tricks used by Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to make smartphones so addictive

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

48. Facing the bull: feminism takes on the economy

I found this piece of "guerrilla art" extremely moving. Kristen Visbel designed this sculpture of a girl facing the charging bull of Wall Street. It was installed just before women's international day. State Street Global advisors commissioned the work and explained it was calling for greater diversity in the private sector in general and financial sector in particular. However, the image suggests a bit more than that (to me at least). For example: which of the two figures transmit true authority? which of the two figures is in control of him/herself? which one truly says fearlessness? which one is free -are any of them-? what do they see in each other/do they see each other? which effect are they expecting to have on the other? can any of them have a positive effect on the other?
Looking at it from a feminist point of view: is this girl speaking about contraception, abortion, abuse (the most salient feminist issues)? is she really speaking only about gender diversity in the work place (the topic the organisers claim to be symbolising) ? or is this speechless girl changing the conversation altogether? Does she only represent women? Is feminism ready to face the bull, take on the next big battle: economics?

A girl facing the bull: self-contained strength v rampant hunger/anger

A bull in a state of frenzy might have represented a sense of triumph for Wall Street for surviving a crisis, but it is hardly an inspirational image. This became particularly clear after the 2008 crisis. However, that sense of blind hunger/anger in form of ambition, selfishness, greed was presented back then as something positive, something that was causing the economy to grow and therefore unquestionably good for all.
Having ambition was the mark of someone successful even if it was becoming clear that success was an unreachable moving target that never gets satisfied. A hunger that produced tasteless, unwholesome food that in the attempt to satisfy reproduces hunger and trap us in a circular movement. A hunger that hoarded things that are not touched, are not used, are not played with. A hoarding that sucks up resources that are then recycled but are not used to produce anything else (let's remember that most of the money the finance sector moves never enters the 'real' economy).

A bull that conveys a sense of anticipation, what is about to do, what is about to win in front of a girl satisfied by her own stance, by the present moment, proposing to stop and change the game. This is a challenge as much as it is a proposal, because she does not challenge the bull from the logic of fear.

A girl facing the bull: feminism in economics

There are many feminist voices in economics speaking up. Some of them argue for care work to be considered work, some others discuss universal income, somehow focusing on the distribution issue.
I'm particularly interested (at least for the moment) in the 'female' role (nothing to do with gender) in creation: The one that creates spaces and conditions (and even probably markets), the one the makes the long term investment, not necessarily expecting a "return" on the investment through interests but rather a "forward" on the investment: whatever was invested will be paid forwardly and passed on to future generations. In previous articles, I suggested that "states" tend to adopt the female role in contra-position of the private sector.

Mariana Mazzucato speaks all around the world and wrote several books about the role of the state in innovation that tends to be invisibilised and unacknowledged:

In this video Professor Laura Bear speaks about how financial mechanisms subjugated politics to the finance sector and forces governments to austerity:

Ann Pettifor, one of the few economists that predicted the 2008 financial crisis, has just published a book speaking about the production of money, and argues that it is a feminist issue in this article in The Guardian, where she tries to correct two of the fallacies that another woman, Margaret Tatcher, "incepted" in public common sense: comparing the economy with a household budget, and "there is no money".

The economy is nothing like a house budget

"On the first, the public are told that cuts in spending and in some benefits, combined with rises in income from taxes will – just as with a household – balance the budget. Even though a single household’s budget is a) minuscule compared to that of a government; b) does not, like the government’s, impact on the wider economy; c) does not benefit from tax revenues (now, or in the foreseeable future); and d) is not backed by a powerful central bank. Despite all these obvious differences, government budgets are deemed analogous (by economists and politicians) to a household budget.
To understand why the government/household analogy is false it is important to understand that the balance of the government budget, unlike that of a household, is entirely a function of the wider economy. If the economy slumps (as in 2008-9) and the private sector weakens, then like a see-saw the public sector deficit, and then the debt, rises. When private economic activity revives (thanks to increased investment, employment, sales etc) tax revenues rise, unemployment benefits fall, and the government deficit and debt follow the same downward trajectory.
So, to balance the government’s budget, efforts must be made to revive Britain’s economy, including the indebted private sector. Because government spending (unlike a household’s spending) has a big impact on the economy, governments can use loan-financed investment to expand tax-generating employment – both public (for example, nurses and teachers) and private sector employment (construction workers)."
No money?

"The second myth is that “there is no money” – for social care, the NHS, education and skilled, well-paid employment – all of which disproportionately impact on women’s lives.
Philip Hammond will present his budget on International Women’s Day, but has already warned against any rise in spending, and repeated a meme popular with politicians: namely that “there is no pot of money under my desk”.. His views are echoed by Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016 that “there is no proverbial magic money tree”.
One woman can be said to have given the phrase “there is no money” much credibility. In her 1983 speech to the Conservative party conference, Margaret Thatcher declared that: “The state has no source of money, other than the money people earn themselves. If the state wishes to spend more it can only do so by borrowing your savings, or by taxing you more … There is no such thing as public money. There is only taxpayers’ money.”

Today this framing of the debate is at odds with reality. After the financial crisis, the Bank of England injected £1,000bn into the private finance sector to prevent systemic economic failure. And after the shock of the Brexit vote, the Bank unveiled the “Term Funding Scheme” as part of a £170bn “stimulus package”aimed at the private finance sector. The money was “public money” offered at a historically low interest rate – to bankers. It was not raised by cutting spending, and it was not raised from “your taxes”, even while its issue was backed by Britain’s taxpayers."

And finally, on economics and feminism: 
And while women may have broken the shackles that tie them to work in the home, they have acquired new chains: economic myths that prolong economic weakness, deny them access to the services they need, and to skilled, well-paid work that would improve living standards.

Going back to the girl and the bull: for whom are we routing for? who should win -should any of them win-? is this a battle?