Desktop Regulatory State in the News Again

According to the received version of “interest group pluralism” in J.K. Galbraith’s book American Capitalism, there’s supposed to be a sort of check-and-balance system (Galbraith called it “countervailing power”) between big business, government regulatory agencies and organized labor. But what usually happens in the real world, when the allegedly “opposing” centers of power are so few, is that they collude with one another rather than checking each other’s power. Big labor as we know it (the AFL-CIO unions certified under the auspices of the Wagner Act) is mainly an ally of management whose job is to enforce contracts on the rank-and-file and prevent wildcats and other forms of direct action on the job. And government-business relationships are notoriously collusive, with the two either forming “complexes” like the Military-Industrial Complex, or coming together through regulatory capture (for example the revolving door between USDA appointees and the management of agribusiness corporations). But as an NBC news story shows (Javier E. David, “Cyberbullying’s Got a New Target: Big Business,” NBCNews, March 28), there’s one regulatory agency big business can’t capture:  Us!

So long as the economic and political system are organized around a few concentrated centers of power there’s no getting around their natural tendency to form alliances. But there’s one way to make the “regulatory state” beyond cooptation: make it coextensive with all of us, without any leadership or management claiming to act in our name. And that’s exactly what the horizontal, networked forms of organization enabled by the Internet are doing.

Several years ago, Tom Coates observed that the combination of networked communications and free, open-source desktop- and browser-based platforms were enabling people to perform informational work (coding, publishing, recording, etc.) of a higher standard at home than they could do at the office with the meetings and interruptions and the unwieldy proprietary firmware they were forced to use. John Robb coined the phrase “superempowered individual” to describe the way that such communications and easily available platforms acted as force multipliers and enabled individuals or small cells to take on enormous, bureaucratic institutions (for example Al Qaeda taking on the United States) in asymmetric warfare. The same general phenomenon is illustrated by what file-sharing “pirates” have done to the music and movie industries, what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden did to the U.S. security state, and the way the Arab Spring and Syntagma have brought down entire national governments.

In regard to holding corporate malefactors accountable, the basic principles have been around a long time. The Wobblies coined the phrase “open mouth sabotage” for when disgruntled employees leak documents and otherwise inform the public of all the dirt that goes on inside their companies that their employers would rather us not know about.

With the rise of the Internet, social media and support outlets like Wikileaks and other leak sites, the potential for open-mouth sabotage has escalated by several orders of magnitude. We saw the first inklings of this new promise with the McLibel trial and Frank Kernaghan’s “culture jamming” campaign against sweatshops in the late ’90s. Meanwhile, the traditional labor tactic of community campaigns and corporate campaigns, combined with boycotts and dissident shareholder resolutions, has likewise experienced a quantum leap in its power — as evidenced by campaigns like the Coalition of Immolakee Workers’ successful nationwide information and boycott campaign against a number of fast food chains. When all these facets of networked activism join up together against a giant corporation, it’s like a swarm of pirahna skeletonizing a T. Rex.

In this latest fit of media attention to the phenomenon, Javier David examines corporate PR flacks’ unhappy experiences with the brave new world of social media activism, and the bad — very bad! — things that happen when an official happy talk campaign encounters folks on Twitter and Facebook who won’t cooperate and stick to the talking points. His cases in point are two recent corporate PR campaign rollouts — Starbucks’ #RaceTogether (aimed at getting workers and customers to have “a conversation” about racial issues) and a sexist DC Comics Batgirl cover — that turned into humiliating disasters on social media. In both cases, the campaigns were withdrawn in a bloody rout.

David also mentions a 2013 Twitter campaign against Sallie Mae for harassing the parents of a dead student to repay their college loan, which left the company reeling in the face of public outrage.

Although David doesn’t mention it, the new democratic media architecture has also made itself felt in international politics. Had the EZLN uprising in Chiapas or Shell Oil’s use of mercenary death squads to murder activists in Nigeria occurred before the 1990s, the news would never have gone any further than page E7 of The New York Times. But thanks to worldwide activist networks based on the Internet, Shell suffered serious public embarrassment. And the Zapatistas, who a decade earlier would have been permanently suppressed in a matter of days, have maintained territorial self-government in Chiapas for over twenty years.

Everyone agrees that the underlying cause of all this is a fundamental structural shift from communications media built on a unidirectional hub-and-spoke architecture in which a handful of central gatekeepers control what we see, to a networked “many-to-many” architecture in which we can talk to each other — or talk back! — and they can’t shut us up. As to whether this is a good thing, reactions among the talking heads are mixed.

David himself frames the obligatory “on the one hand…, on the other…” narrative in a decidedly odd way. The Internet is “seen by many as a way to hold companies accountable for their business practices, and give consumers a measure of leverage.” This, apparently, is the Jekyll side of the equation. “Yet it also [emphasis mine] means big firms no longer totally control their own narratives, and companies can quickly become helpless bystanders in their own story.” Now to me it seems that the two statements are just different ways of saying the same thing. Consumers are able to hold corporations accountable because the latter no longer control the message. Nobody but the corporations should have a problem with that, and it’s a safe bet that anything corporate management is upset about is good reason for rejoicing on the part of everybody else who isn’t a moral leper. So David’s “yet… also” framing of the loss of corporate message control as a downside is a bit like a story on antibiotics that gives equal billing to the opinion of a pneumococcus bacterium.

David quotes M.I.T. Sloan School professor Renee Richardson Gosline: “Back in the day of the ‘Mad Men’ era, companies had complete control over messages and what consumers were able to see.” Now, on the other hand, “the consumer has a voice too.”

Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum sees it in a more uniformly negative light. “The views of a niche are being blown up … and drives what appears to be the public’s view. Social media is starting to drive the first round of public opinion. It can provoke a more extreme view than what may be represented by the public.”

Let’s step back and put Polonetsky’s complaint in perspective. From the rise of the American corporate-state nexus in the late 19th century until maybe twenty years ago, we’ve lived with a view of “mainstream public opinion” crafted almost entirely by the managerial-centrist elites of big business, regulatory agencies, large universities and the public school establishment, large non-profit foundations, and the corporate media. Not only has the entire institutional framework of the corporate state been erected by these interlocking institutional interests, with virtually nothing in the way of real public feedback or accountability, but these bureaucratic oligarchies have maneuvered the country into one war after another on false pretexts, presented to the public as a fait accompli. In every case, they have relied on a centralized, one-way information gatekeeping system to “manufacture consent” (in the words of Edward Bernays, who helped Woodrow Wilson engineer public support for US entry into WWI and went on to found the public relations industry). And in every case, because the public’s only idea of “public opinion” was the digestive end-product excreted by the media arm of these interlocking corporate-state elites, “public opinion” has always been framed by the establishment as a narrow range of alternatives compatible with minor tweaking of the existing system by those currently running it. Any policy alternative outside this managerial-centrist range, that would fundamentally alter the structure of the system to the point of seriously reducing the power of corporate-state elites,” was dismissed as “extremist” and outside the “mainstream consensus” of public opinion. And the public had no way of knowing otherwise because, aside from direct discussion with their immediate circle of friends, they had no real way of knowing what “public opinion” was except through what the centralized information system told them it was.

There’s no concern at all on Polonetsky’s part that the old manufactured “centrist consensus,” engineered to be consistent with continued rule by corporate-state elites, might have represented something less than authentic “public opinion.” But now that a century and a half of corporate-manufactured “public opinion” — whose reflection of actual public opinion is basically unknowable — is coming to an end, and we’re actually able to talk to each other without the intermediation of CBS News and the Associated Press, he’s suddenly concerned that extremists are creating a misleading impression of public opinion.

No. Throughout human history, “public opinion” (so-called) has been engineered by “extremists” — the elite managers of opinion C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realists,” and ironic media commentators today refer to as the “serious people.” Every society in history, since the rise of the first states and the first systems of class exploitation, has had a cultural reproduction apparatus whose purpose was to make sure each new generation was enculturated to view the system of power they lived under was natural and inevitable, the only feasible way of doing things, and that any alternative that involved significant loss of power to the ruling elites was “extremist.”

For too long, we have lived under an informational system designed to preempt our horizontal communications with each other, so that our only communication with the rest of society was mediated by the gatekeeping elites in charge of the old broadcast hub-and-spoke architectures. Our only impression of what “public opinion” might be was aggregated by those structures. But now, to quote James Scott in Domination and the Art of Resistance, ordinary people are able to communicate directly with each other, and “recognize the full extent to which their claims, their dreams, their anger is shared by other subordinates with whom they have not been in direct touch.”

Now, for the first time, we’re able to bypass the manufactured consensus, talk to each other, and talk back to the people running things. And now that we’re talking to each other, we’ll be saying — and doing — some things they don’t like. Wherever they go, whatever they do, we’re watching them. And we’re taking action.

To repeat something I’ve said many times: The 20th century was the era of the giant organization. By the end of the 21st, there won’t be enough of them left to bury.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory