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Posts Tagged ‘guardian’

On Friday journalist Paul Mason published a fairly long article in the Guardian entitled ‘The End of Capitalism Has Begun.’ It features some interesting thoughts, and will hopefully help disseminate some ideas which have been floating about in academia for quite a while to a broader audience. That said, there are a few things in the piece which I think are somewhat naieve and require a response to.

The main thrust of Mason’s argument is that capitalism is inevitably on the way out because of several social changes being wrought by contemporary networked information processing technologies. Firstly, Mason argues that because of the increased levels of automation brought by digital systems, there will be a dramatic reduction in the volume of work required within a society. Secondly, he argues that the fundamental laws of economics have been broken by an information economy within the contemporary state of informational abundance. Finally, he argues that ‘cognitive capitalism’ is predicated on a mode of collaborative and networked social production which itself is contradictory to the type of individualised wealth production associated with capitalism.

The first of these points is hardly new. The displacement of labour from humans into various forms of machinery is, of course, something which has occurred for at least a couple of hundred years, as was presciently observed and described by Karl Marx (in the Fragment on Machines, a text which Mason cites later in his essay). Alongside the ongoing historical transformation of production processes, there have always been the claim that technology will make everyone’s life better by reducing the need for arduous and boring labour tasks, instead freeing humanity to enjoy increased levels of leisure time accompanied by a higher level of material wealth and comfort. And whilst there are certainly some humans who are in that situation today, we could also point to the increasing precariousness of work, particularly within neoliberal economies where full employment has never been an important goal, as a reminder that decreasing the overall level of manual labour does not necessarily entail benefits for all.

Rather than seeing work and wealth equally being divided amongst citizens, today we instead find millions of unemployed or underemployed humans who are effectively used as an industrial reserve force to reduce any demands for increased wages, reduced working hours and other kinds of benefits which were associated with the collective action of the twentieth century trade union movements. Whilst a relatively small number of humans become more materially wealthy than any of their predecessors, this occurs alongside a growing inequality between the global super rich and everyone else. As research last year found, the richest 85 individuals on the planet now own more than the poorest 50% of the global population, around 3.5 billion people.

Additionally, in a ‘creative’ ‘digital economy where communicative acts are themselves commodified over corporate social networks, what does and does not count as productive work is itself problematised. Theorists ranging from autonomist Marxists such as Franco Berardi through to cyberutopian capitalists such as Clay Shirky have argued that what used to count as leisure time is now a key motor of wealth generation, as your online ‘leisure’ activities are used to tailor personal, location-aware advertising to your behaviour.

Which brings us to Mason’s second point, that economics is predicated upon scarcity, and that the current abundance of information demarcates that we have entered an era where traditional economic theory cannot adequately function. Again, rhetoric surrounding the end of the economics of scarcity is not new, but such thinking fundamentally fails to grasp the dynamics of scarcity surrounding informational systems, and systems is a key word here, because economics is about circulation and flows, not a single thing (be it information, energy or anything else). Information is certainly a crucial component of digital networked ecologies, and the volume of contemporary information – what Mark Andrejevic and Berardi have both described as information overload – is certainly not one of scarcity, but the key is to think in systemic terms as to what type of scarcity is generated as a consequence of the abundance of information. The answer, is that human attention is what become scarce when information is abundant.

Indeed, the notion of the attention economy is not that new, with early versions of the term being deployed by authors such as Michael Goldhaber and Georg Franck around the turn of the century. For an excellent overview of contemporary debates surrounding economies of attention I would suggest reading this article by Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley. The key point, is that far from rendering the economics of scarcity redundant, what we instead find is that the abundance of online information means that human attention is increasingly scarce and thus becomes a desirable and lucrative commodity, which is why heavily targeted online advertising is a booming multi-billion business, one which ventures such as Google’s search engine, Facebook, YouTube and other major online players are almost entirely dependent upon for their revenues and astronomical market valuations.

The third point Mason raises, that online networks are predicated upon modes of social cooperation and collectivity which are contradictory to the mode of capitalism they are located within, and thus contain the seeds of a new social system which will eventually replace capitalism itself, is arguably the most complex and interesting point he raises. However, this too is hardly a new statement, as it is one of the central tenets of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s triad of books Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth, as well as being an argument which has been raised in differing forms by theorists such as Bernard Stiegler (via the economy of contribution) and Michel Bauwens (via peer-to-peer production). I wont go into these positions in much detail here, but what I do think is worth highlighting is that many of these claims about biopolitical production, economies of contribution and peer-to-peer production were originally made quite a while ago (Empire was released in 2000), and that since those times, there has been the emergence of the the big corporate social media players whose financial model is entirely predicated on the exploitation of the free cooperative labour of their users.

This isn’t to say that people don’t get anything from Facebook (basically some cost-free server storage, a fairly clean user interface, and access to the billion-plus strong Facebook network), but that Facebook’s market valuation of over 250 billion US dollars is entirely built upon its ability to commodify the social relationships of its users. Far from existing outside of, and in opposition to a capitalism which is wrongly assumed to by monolithic and rigid, we see the way that capitalism (which depends upon finding new areas to provide growth) has found a way of extending what it understood to be a commodity, so that many aspects of our social lives, which were previously thought to be intangible, unquantifiable and thus could not be monetised, are now major players in global financial markets.

Indeed, whereas during the early days of the internet, the underlying technology itself and the modes of cooperation it made possible such as the distributed mode of production that underpins Free and Open Source software were seen as radical new technologically-enabled alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, what we have seen more recently has been the way that capitalism has been able to find novel ways of reintegrating these innovations into financial markets, such as the way that Google utilises open source software outside of search in areas such as Android and Chrome. Indeed, one of the most interesting analyses of contemporary capitalism comes from Jodi Dean, who argues that our current era is marked by a stage of communicative capitalism, whereby far from forming alternatives to global capitalism, participation in networked digital telecommunications has become a central driver of the capitalist economy.

Mason surmises his argument by stating that:

The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next

This presents a straightforward binary opposition between network and hierarchy, between the new, good digital ways which point towards a postcapitalism and the bad, old ones which represent our capitalist past and present. However much I might wish this to be the case, and it would be really lovely to think that current technologies will inevitably lead to the replacement of a system of gross global social inequalities and catastrophic climate change with something better, I find the kind of technological determinism present in Mason’s essay to be blinkered at best. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari remind us in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, it is not a case of opposing hierarchical models with networked and decentralised ones, but a case of understanding how these two tendencies occur in different ways in actual systems which are almost always a combination of the two.

Thinking this way means mapping the new hierarchies and modes of exploitation associated digital technologies whilst also looking for the lines of flight, or positive ways of transforming the situation that the new technological formations present. That doesn’t mean that there can be no hope for change that involves technology, but that positing this situation as a good/bad binary opposition, or suggesting that technology itself holds essential characteristics which will necessarily transform society in a particular direction is a misguided approach. Indeed, some of the most interesting materials coming out of the P2P foundation recently have argued that openess is not enough, that just making things open or collaborative can lead to growing inequalities as the actors with the most attentional, algorithmic and economic resources are ususally those best placed to leverage open data, open culture and open source ventures. Alongside openess, they argue that we need to think about sustainability and solidarity in order to bring about the type of social and ecological transformation that would mark the end of capitalism. That to me sounds like a far more productive call to action than simply gesturing towards the digital technologies whose introduction has not thus far been accompanied by a more egalitarian and sustainable global society.

 

 

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So the other day I wrote about why I don’t think the 10:10 campaign in general works, and why Richard Curtis’s promotional film for it was destined to be a spectacular own goal which offended people and put them off environmentalism.

And today the Guardian has a piece describing what’s happened since…

The charities that backed a Richard Curtis film for the 10:10 environmental campaign said today that they were “absolutely appalled” when they saw the director’s four-minute short, which was withdrawn from circulation amid a storm of protest.

The charity ActionAid, which co-ordinates the 10:10 schools programme, today welcomed the move. “Our job is to encourage proactive decisions at class level to reduce carbon emissions. We did it because evidence shows children are deeply concerned about climate change and because we see the impacts of it in the developing world where a lot of our work is. So we think the 10:10 campaign is very important, but the moment this film was seen it was clear it was inappropriate.

The questions we ought to be asking now are how did the 10:10 team ever think that a promotional film featuring authority figures such as a teacher and an office manager blowing up children and workers who dont sign up to their campaign was a good idea and how much money and carbon were wasted by their celebrity packed own goal?

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The 10:10 campaign championed by the likes of the Guardian has got a lot of airtime recently, and today there’s a new article promoting their new campaign video on the Guardian website.

I’m not suggesting that the campaign wont have achieved anything good (after all any emissions reductions aren’t a bad thing) but the whole ethos of the campaign is something I find deeply problematic. The central idea of course is that individuals, businesses and governments cut their carbon emissions by 10% over the course of 2010. Which on the surface sounds like a good thing, surely cutting carbon emissions across the board is a good thing?

Well yes. Kind of. But what 10:10 doesn’t address is the massive inequality of emissions between different individuals and businesses. For someone who takes six flights a year, drives 15k miles in a 25mpg 4×4 and has a massive house with no insulation and incandescent light bulbs and who eats factory farmed imported meat twice a day and has an otherwise high level of consumption cutting 10% of their emissions is pretty straight forwards. Take a couple of flights less, drive 13.5k miles in their 4×4 and get some energy saving light bulbs or insulation. That individual still has a gargantuan carbon footprint, but it’s 10% smaller than it was before. Are they now sustainable, and have they ‘done their bit’ towards ‘saving the world’ (as the nauseating Guardian article describes the campaign). Of course not.

Now compare that to someone who has been eco-conscious for a number of years, who doesn’t fly, doesn’t drive, buys local produce, who pays extra for renewable-generated electricity and consequently is already has a carbon footprint way below the national average, and may well be living in a sustainable way. What are they meant to do to cut 10% of their emissions? Live without a fridge? Leave the heating off for the first half of winter? Shower only ever using cold water?

So you see the problem, 10:10 is trivial to achieve for the heaviest polluters and extremely hard to achieve for people who actually made an effort to live sustainably because it expects both groups of people to make the same percentage change. It’s the same trick that bourgeois environmentalists like Richard Heinberg have persuasively argued in favour of: a universal percentage reduction, which means that those who have done the most damage make a trivial gesture towards sustainability while those who aren’t really part of the problem have to make the same percentage cut. This has nothing to do with bringing emissions down to a sustainable level. The way to do that is to agree upon what that level should be and then to get people to work towards it, with a cap and dividend system so those who live unsustainably compensate those who are. 10% of totally unsustainable is still totally unsustainable. Accusing people who are already living sustainably of destroying the world because they aren’t going to make further cuts while most of those around them have emissions 3-5 times higher than them is just stupid.

And of course that focusses purely at the level of the individual. While governments are still happy to support costly fossil fuel extraction schemes such as deepwater oil field exploration and tar sands development while failing to adequately support renewable energy generation (Vestas being a case in point) allied with their failure to come to any kind of international agreement to supplant the soon to expire Kyoto Protocol, the actions of individuals are rendered entirely insignificant. How unsurprising then that free marketeers love the idea of 10:10, not only does it mean that the heaviest individual polluters have to take trivial action, but it also means that middle class liberals can feel good about having ‘saved the world’ without the need for any kind of national or international regulation.

And so now the campaign has a new promotional film, in which people who don’t pledge support to the campaign are blown up by figures of authority such as a schoolteacher or boss. Given that many denialist arguments centre on the alleged coercive centralised authority of the warmist movement this video is not very likely to win anyone over. On the Guardian page commentators have remarked that it’s humorous to suggest executing anyone who doesn’t agree with your position. I’m not really seeing the joke.

The video comes across as patronising and highly un-funny. It will undoubtedly offend and alienate people. The campaign itself has achieved something in terms of emissions reductions, but an optional 10% carbon emission decrease has nothing to do with the ridiculous notion of ‘saving the planet’ or even the more sensible notion of avoiding some of the worst of the predicted effects of anthropogenic climate change. Really it’s little more than a way of avoiding middle class guilt at the lack of meaningful action over climate change.

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Yesterday I wrote about the Penn State University investigation into Michael Mann’s research conduct which stemmed from the Climate Research Unit email hack widely known as Climategate, and criticising media outlets such as the Guardian, which gave a huge amount of coverage to the ‘scandal’ whilst then failing to give anything like equal attention to the three subsequent investigations which have found that there was no research misconduct on the part of climate scientists, and absolutely no evidence of fraud, data manipulation or inventing climate change to receive funding money.

Today, Fred Pearce, who wrote an utterly abysmal 10 part special on Climategate for the Guardian, and has now written a book on the subject, has a new piece linked off the front page of the paper. Shockingly, this latest piece on Climategate repeats the claims that

Critics say the emails reveal evasion of freedom of information law, secret deals done during the writing of reports for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a cover-up of uncertainties in key research findings and the misuse of scientific peer review to silence critics.

However Pearce decides to entirely omit from his report that three independent investigations have found every one of these claims not to be true. One would have thought that mentioning that the scientists have now been vindicated by three separate investigations into the accusations Pearce restates would be an important part of the story, but apparently this is not the case. He does mention the Muir Russell investigation, the fourth inquiry which is due to report its findings on Wednesday, and then says that

whatever Sir Muir Russell, the chairman of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, concludes on these charges, senior climate scientists say their world has been dramatically changed by the affair.

Unbelievably it would seem that Fred Pearce thinks that it doesn’t matter whether climate scientists are guilty of research misconduct, fraudulently manipulating data or any of the other charges of which they have been accused. In the surreal world of the mainstream media, what matters is not the facts surrounding the issue, and certainly not the results of independent investigations into these matters, but the number of bogus accusations already made by journalists and bloggers.

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I’ve just been reading a piece by John Vidal on the Guardian Website about the new draft text prepared by the UN Secretariat at the end of their discussions in Bonn over the past couple of weeks

In the piece Vidal states

The new draft text is also guaranteed to infuriate the US, which has so far only pledged to cut its emissions 17% by 2020 on 2005 emission levels – far less than European Union countries who have committed themselves to 20% cuts by 2020 and a 30% cut if other countries show similar ambition. “If this text were to be adopted, then the US would find it particularly difficult. It means they would have to do very much more,” said one European diplomat.

Are pledged cuts of 17% of emissions really ‘far less’ than pledged cuts of 20%? Well if you were getting your information solely from this article you might think perhaps not. What Vidal fails to explain however, is that whereas the US has pledged cuts of 17% of 2005 emissions, the EU figure relates to 1990 levels. As the unlike the EU the US didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, its emissions grew by about 15% between 1990 and 2005, meaning that if they were measured from the same baseline as everyone else in the world – that is their 1990 levels – the cuts the US has pledged amount to a rather pathetic 4% And this will of course include emissions savings from carbon trading and other schemes which are designed to allow developed countries to avoid actually cutting emissions.

Vidal is comparing apples (cuts based on 1990 levels) to oranges (cuts based on 2005 levels) to paint an entirely confusing picture of what is going on and who has pledged what.

Rather ridiculously though, the actual UN text they are referring to is not much clearer on what exactly it proposes

Developed country Parties shall undertake, individually or jointly, legally binding nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, [including][expressed as] quantified economy-wide emission reduction objectives [while ensuring comparability of efforts and on the basis of cumulative historical responsibility, as part of their emission debt] with a view to reducing the collective greenhouse gas emissions of developed country Parties by [at least] [25–40] [in the order of 30] [40] [45] [49] [X*] per cent from [1990] [or 2005] levels by [2017][2020] [and by [at least] [YY] per cent by 2050 from the[1990] [ZZ] level].

Developed country Parties’ quantified economy-wide emission reduction objectives shall be formulated as a percentage reduction in greenhouse gas emissions [for the period] [from 2013 to 2020]
compared to 1990 or another base year [adopted under the Convention] [, and shall be inscribed in a legally binding agreement].

So the actual UN text seems to suggest that the UN thinks it’s okay for the US to invent a new baseline date for any emission cuts which means that its cuts will be minute compared to those of other developed nations, despite the US per capita emissions figure being far higher than that in Europe and elsewhere. Quite why Vidal and others think that this will infuriate the US is fairly odd, the provision for dates other than 1990 to act as a baseline appears to have been inserted purely to appease the US.

No wonder developing nations are calling this another stitch up along the lines of the Copenhagen Accord. Expecting details such as this to be picked up by the mainstream media when they can’t even give their readers figures based on the same start date seems like wishful thinking though.

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So it seems that after a flurry of activity for the climate swoop last week where climate activists met at six strategic locations before converging on Blackheath to set up this year’s Climate Camp the mainstream media have largely lost interest in events.

On the Guardian website today we have bibi van der Zee claiming that ‘Five days in and the campers admit things are a little boring – there are no more toilets to put up and the police have vanished. But a plan for direct action should put the zip back into things’

If you took reports like that seriously you would believe that essentially nothing has been going on at camp since the set up on Wedsnesday and Thursday last week. In fact the site has been awash with activity as the camp has hosted roughly 30-35 workshops a day in addition to the daily neighbourhood meetings.

These workshops have covered everything from creating bicycle powered sound systems to the science of climate change and the current state of geoengineering, from creating your own media to understanding the subtleties of carbon trading schemes, from communicating climate science to lay audiences to building your own wind turbines, from direct action and legal observer training to understanding the links between the arms trade and climate change, from consensus based decision making and direct democracy to creating biochar as a green energy source.

In fact there have been so many disparate workshops, seminars and debates that it would be impossible to to attend more than a fraction of them. Meanwhile, the small amount of mainstream media coverage still focusing on the camp (largely in the Guardian) sees the likes of Van der Zee moaning that the camp has come boring because there aren’t campers being beaten up by the police like at the G20. It truly indicates the sad state of corporate media when even the allegedly left wing papers are interested in issues only so long as they are presented with dramatic images of police attacking protesters.

Somewhat bizarrely in yesterday’s Observer Peter Beaumont claimed that ‘the protesters should spend more time convincing others that their actions are sound,’ it’s hard to understand what he believes the workshops on the science of climate change and the careful efforts of campers to provide factually accurate workshops which clearly delineate why they are involved in protesting around these issues, but somewhat unsurprisingly he fails to mention that any workshops are taking place, instead focusing on what he claims are Climate Camp’s ‘often hazy messages and complex inner negotiations.’ Quite how specifically targetting institutions such as the European Climate Exchange, Barclays Bank and Shell, while holding discussions and workshops which communicate precisely why these targets have been chosen can be understood as ‘hazy’ is somewhat beyond me. In fairness it merely appears to be another case of a lazy journalist writing poorly researched rubbish having been disappointed at the lack of sensationalist images of police fighting with protesters.

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The Guardian has posted the statements of three eyewitnesses who all claim to have seen first hand the Police violently attacking Ian Tomlinson minutes before he collapsed.

A riot officer came up behind him and grabbed him. It wasn’t just pushing him – he’d rushed him. He went to the floor and he did actually roll. That was quite noticeable. It was the force of the impact. It was all from behind. The officer hit him twice with a baton [when he was] on the floor. So it wasn’t just that the officer had pushed him – it became an assault. And then the officer picked him up from the back, continued to walk or charge with him, and threw him. He was running and stumbling. He didn’t turn and confront the officer or anything like that.
Anna Branthwaite, 36, freelance photographer, south London

I saw a man approaching the police line from my right. He was quite tall with a beer belly and short hair. I later recognised him from a picture. He was on his own. He walked up to the police across the Royal Exchange Building, towards the centre left of their line. He did not appear drunk – he was walking normally. I saw him suddenly fall back as though flung down with force. It was as though he had been spun. He fell and hit the top of his head hard. I was shocked. He lay on the ground for around 30 seconds without moving before a protester helped him up. The police did not help him at all.
Kezia Rolfe, 27, NGO researcher, Stoke Newington

Police got into scuffles with people. They were pushing the line forward. When he got hit, police were coming forwards. He got hit near the head with a baton. I saw him fall so I moved back. But I saw him on the floor and someone picking him up – that’s when I took the picture. After that, I was taking pictures of police and the dog line, and a girl came and said ‘This guy needs help’. He was further back down the road.
Amiri Howe, 24, actor/musician, west London

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/06/g20-protest-police-assault

Meanwhile if we take a look at the BBC, we find an article which states that

Witnesses have told the IPCC that the newsagent, who was not part of the protest, had “contact” with police officers before collapsing.

Followed by a quote from IPCC commissioner Deborah Glass saying that

“Initially we had accounts from independent witnesses who were on Cornhill, who told us that there had been no contact between the police and Mr Tomlinson when he collapsed.

“However, other witnesses who saw him in the Royal Exchange area have since told us that Mr Tomlinson did have contact with police officers.

Amazing how eyewitness testimony that riot police assaulting someone and striking them with a baton can be spun into ‘having contact.’ While technically yes, it is contact with someone, it’s a cleverly phrased piece of proaganda by the police commission seeking to downplay the extent of the unneccesary violence which was entirely characteristic of their approach this week.

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