The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Internet Makes Real Organizing Harder (Technology and Prosperity #2)

When it comes to communications technologies and their effect on freedom and prosperity we have to remember that income and wealth share is a product of power.

All wage increases are a result of either scarcity of labor, whether labor in general or a shortage of specific skills; or they are a matter of organizing to convince powerful people, whether corporate bosses or politicians, to give you more money.  (There should be no shame in this, the rich spend billions influencing politicians to give them more money and power.)

This means that there are three conditions where wages are good:

1) Labor is scarce and people can easily find a new job.  The job market is, therefore tight, there are really more jobs employers want done than there are people who want work.

2) Wages can be good in specific jobs even if they are lousy elsewhere if there is a shortage of workers in that field: see computer programmers during the late 90s.

3) People can make a good living without working for someone else, or at least a good enough living so that they have to offer a good job for people to stop doing so.

The more fungible labor is, that is the more one person can be replaced by any other, the less it is paid.  If every job is skilled, workers are harder to replace.  The more jobs are Taylorized – easy jobs that anyone can do, as with the de-skilling of fast order cooking by places like McDonalds, the less the workers get paid.  (Short order cooks, before the rise of fast food, were well paid.)

Communications technology influences this in two ways:

1) the ability of management to control workers without being there themselves.

2) the ability of workers to organize, either politically, or in the work place for work stoppages, strikes and so on.

Before the telecom revolution it was very hard to offshore or outsource so much work.  It wasn’t impossible, the telephone and the jet airplane existed, but it was hard.  You couldn’t control the people working for you overseas.  As a result, you tended to want to keep your factories close to hand.  Generally in or near your home town or city; and if you moved to a cheaper locale, it was still in the country.  If you wanted to properly control workers and production in foreign countries you had to send your own executives to do it because you just didn’t have the easy communications we have today.

This was one thing if you were sending them to Canada or Western Europe. It was another thing entirely if it was some third world country where, servants aside, the executives would hate living.

So the telecom revolution makes it much more practicable to offshore production to both lower cost domiciles and to domiciles where you can expect the government to beat, jail, torture, rape and in many cases kill any labor organizers.  Even if you don’t move overseas, you can easily keep your wages cheap by playing domestic workers off against foreign ones: “if you don’t make concessions, we’ll move this factory to China/Bangladesh/Mexico.”

(There are many other factors.  In a very fast moving market there are reasons to keep production at home for the fastest turnover, for example, but in an economy where there are only 3 real smart phone companies, why bother?)

The second question is of organizing ability. In the work place people can organize if they know their fellow workers, if they trust their fellow workers, and if withdrawing their wages will leave their employers unable to produce (which is why scabs are so hated.)  In the days of classic union organizing everyone worked in a few huge factories; they knew each other; and they worked with dangerous machinery and trusted each other.

The internet fragments people.  Instead of grouping people geographically so that they can learn to trust each other even if they have some differences, it finds ways to group us with like minded people.

Worse, it makes real political disruptive political organizing extremely difficult.  The bottom line about the internet is that everything you do can be tracked, and tracked easily. If you use the internet to organize a strike or a demonstration or to shut down a city: whatever it is, the authorities know.   Most of it is public, what isn’t public is spied on.

Worse are cell phones.  Everyone carries one, and it is a bug you carry in your pocket, which can even be turned on remotely to listen in on you.

One result of this is pre-emptive arrests.  You get organized to protest the G20, or whatever, you show up, and the day before the summit, the key organizers are all arrested on trumped up charges.  Even if they beat the rap, they aren’t there for the key days making sure things work.

And if you intend to do any serious work: a strike large enough to shut down a city or a major corporation: something that actually inconveniences the rich and powerful, they will know as well.

If you significantly encrypt and use one-off cell-phones and so on, this sends up a red flag as well, and there are a variety of ways around it. (If your laptop has ever been out of your sight, it is not your laptop.  If you ordered it online and had it shipped, it may well have been intercepted, as with one TOR developer’s laptop (diverted to Richmond, I kid you not.)

Cameras, computer, license plate, and cell phone surveillance mean that it’s almost impossible not to be surveilled.  As routine use of recognition systems is rolled out, as audio pickups are added to cameras in larger numbers, and as drones are added to the domestic surveillance mix, it will become even harder.

Oh sure, if they don’t know you’re organizing they can’t narrow down to you.  But they will know, because to organize most significant actions you have to be visible.

Politics is ultimately where most of distribution is decided.  Absent a vast array of “free trade” treaties and protections, the massive movement of jobs offshore from the late 70s on would not have happened.  Absent the breaking of unions by Reagan and Republicans and Democrats from 80 onward, wages would not have stagnated nearly so much.

If you can’t organize effectively, you are politically mute.  And, by and large, workers are in the US, and increasingly so in almost every other Western country.

A communications technology that actually enables people to organize requires ways of vetting people that can’t be goosed by the government. It needs to bring people together in geographic areas where they can actually work together. It needs to allow the experiences which create solidarity amongst them, and generally that means they must meet and do things together which build trust.

By taking so much of the talk that used to occur in unlistenable, unwatchable ways, and making it visible to the government and any corporation willing to make friends with the right people, the telecom revolution has made actual revolution much, much harder. In the old days you basically had to have spies, and you could never be certain how reliable they were.

Now you can just listen in or watch.  You can see the networks developing in real time, you can identify the leaders, and you can use the information you have to take the leadership out and to be ready for any action before it happens.

The telecom revolution may less about freedom that in it is about control.  It enables the surveillance state revolution: the 24/7 panopticon and rather than putting power into the hands of the people, it puts power into the hands of those who control it.  That’s not to say it has no use: Twitter wasn’t banned in Turkey because it wasn’t making the authorities’ lives harder, after all.

But it is a two-edged sword.  As with most things, it works well only for movements which are so large that taking out the leadership is effectively impossible.  For any movement which isn’t a real mass movement, it is a death trap (and remember, most mass movements start as less.)  And you must have victory if you are a mass movement. If you aren’t, when the mobs die down, and the people go home, well the leaders have been identified, and not just the biggest ones, as in the old days, but the people who are influential without showing up on the podium.

And then the big men come.

Any technology which makes top-down control easier and which makes it easier to replace workers, will reduce prosperity.  The telecom revolution might, one day, make some sort of networked democratic decision-making possible.  But it equally might be used to create a surveillance state that would leave Big Brother in awe.

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  1. Fnord

    There are additional problems beyond surveillance.

    Access can be controlled: ISP’s could easily throttle a protest movements web sites, cut off the access of key people etc.

    Facebook and Google already use algorithms to show you what they think you want to see – there’s no reason why those algorithms can’t be tweaked to hide things they don’t want you to see (like the sites of organizers for a particular cause for example).

    Also, the fact that you normally need to pay to have an internet connection also raises a barrier to entry for people with no money.

    Finally lack of understanding of how the technology works and of ways to try to protect yourself makes the public that much more vulnerable to surveillance and manipulation.

  2. S Brennan

    Since Obama took office he’s had “a hard time finding a shovel ready project…” while shoveling money to his buddies on Wall Street and working on his golf game.

  3. Jeff Wegerson

    Leadership you can trust. Anarchists would argue that is an oxymoron. Clearly the revolutions of the past, getting a bunch of people in the same place to do X, are revolutions of the past. But this is not how the U.S. empire will fall down. It will degrade more like the Roman Empire, that is to say without a single revolutionary change of power.

    Two glues have held the U.S. empire together, the dollar and fossil fuel. The idea that gold backed money is better has its basis in the reality of modern money backed by fossil fuel. But that basis of money masks the true backing of money which is the shorthand you Ian use of “prosperity.” Inflation can happen when you create money faster, or really put money into peoples hands faster, than you create prosperity.

    So now the twin pillars (or single two sided pillar) of the U.S. empire are crumbling. The dollar is under attack by the BRICS and fossil fuel is under attack by clean and distributed sourced energy.

    Non-fossil energy sources (and therefore the power of non-dollar monies) are beginning to enable smaller and more independent centers of local modern technological capabilities (think Iceland). The survivalist fad of going rogue will spread to ever large groups. Like the Amish (going rogue since ####) but with solar collectors and cities.

    Revolution like invasion is an offensive use of force. Just as the defensive weapons of high tech surveillance and control are making revolution harder, so too can high tech defensive weapons enable local independence.

    So the thinking that we need now is not how can we organize to go on the revolutionary offensive but rather how can we create local centers of power that we can defend. Power being money and energy. i.e. Prosperity.

  4. TBAPL

    Twitter is dangerous to governments only insofar as those governments are not well-loved by the government that governs the Twitter corporation. Same is true of Facebook et al.

    Arranging for tumults in enemy territory goes all the way back to the Peloponnesian war at least, and probably much further–the main difference is that with current technology you don’t have to go to the trouble of spiriting the organizers in and out of your own territory, they can organize inside your territory remotely while remaining at home physically. It also helps if you have a nuclear backstop to discourage your adversary from returning the favour.

  5. alyosha

    Jeff Wegerson wrote:

    So the thinking that we need now is not how can we organize to go on the revolutionary offensive but rather how can we create local centers of power that we can defend.

    This makes a lot more sense to me. And in this case, the internet helps – it enables people of like mind to find each other. Like this blog, a very self-selecting audience.

  6. Dan Lynch

    Not sure that I agree with Ian’s main point. Sure, big brother will be watching you, but big brother had snitches in Dr. King’s organization reporting to the FBI daily. There were snitches in the Black Panthers, and so forth.

    If you have a non-violent movement, you probably have nothing to hide, anyway.

    Yes, there will be pre-emptive arrests (or even pre-emptive assassinations, as in the COINTELPRO program). But that is nothing new. Jail radicalizes people, toughens them up, and enhances their street cred.

    If it ever comes to a violent revolution, then the leaders will have to communicate face to face or by trusted messenger, as Bin Laden did. We’ve killed Bin Laden, and we’ve killed the #2 man a gazillion times, yet Al Qaeda is alive and well because more people continue to join.

    I would say what has changed to discourage activism in the US is the information technology to track your arrests — an arrest record automatically disqualifies you for many jobs. Public school teachers should be out protesting these days, but they won’t, because they’re afraid that if they get arrested their teaching career will be over.

    If you have a big student loan to pay off, you don’t want to get arrested because you’ll probably lose your job, get behind in your payments, and your credit rating will be destroyed. Employers routinely screen out job applicants who have a bad credit rating — thanks to technology.

    Another thing that has changed, not so much technology but the law — laws are tougher today. Like the Occupier Cecily McMillan who was charged with a felony because she allegedly pushed an undercover cop who grabbed her breast. A felony on your record is a big deal — you can’t hold many types of jobs, you can’t vote, and you can’t purchase a gun. It’s not like the old days when protesters merely had to pay a $15 fine to get out of jail.

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