Friday, April 06, 2018

The gathering systemic failure of the nation state

You know something's amiss when authors on both sides of the globe write about the same set of phenomena only days apart.  The first to come to my attention was an article by Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton in the Sydney Morning Herald: "The fundamental operating model of Australian politics is breaking down". These authors are heading in the right direction.  Unfortunately they do not go nearly far enough and some of their argument along the way is dubious. I refer especially to their claims that: "The effects of polarisation can be seen in the rising support for increasingly ideological minor parties such as the Greens, One Nation and the Australian Conservatives........As the electorate becomes more ideological, those votes are being cast as firm votes for minor parties, not against the major ones."  This framing seems to me to miss the mark, especially when the authors primary experiences are within one of the main parties. We need an open, societal debate about these issues. But with more nuanced framing than these authors provide.

Then today this article by : "The demise of the nation state", as The Long Read. His analysis is more global and, to me, more convincing.  He echos points that Ed Straw and I are currently writing about in a book due with Routledge in August this year.  Dasgupta argues that:
"Since 1945, we have actively reduced our world political system to a dangerous mockery of what was designed by US president Woodrow Wilson and many others after the cataclysm of the first world war, and now we are facing the consequences. But we should not leap too quickly into renovation. This system has done far less to deliver human security and dignity than we imagine – in some ways, it has been a colossal failure – and there are good reasons why it is ageing so much more quickly than the empires it replaced"

and goes on to claim that there is no going back, no way of improving the 'current model':

"After so many decades of globalisation, economics and information have successfully grown beyond the authority of national governments. Today, the distribution of planetary wealth and resources is largely uncontested by any political mechanism............Without political innovation, global capital and technology will rule us without any kind of democratic consultation, as naturally and indubitably as the rising oceans."

We shall have to wait - but wait with active attention and personal action if his claims that:

"The libertarian dream – whereby antique bureaucracies succumb to pristine hi-tech corporate systems, which then take over the management of all life and resources – is a more likely vision for the future than any fantasy of a return to social democracy."

will come to pass.  Resistance, in the Foucauldian sense can be harnessed on the back of the Cambridge Analytics and Facebook revelations together with growing critique of the antisocial power of black-box algorithms and hard AI.  But this will require effort and greater solidarity - the very thing offered to the UK by membership of the EU.

From his convincing analysis comes the conclusion that:

"The three elements of the crisis described ... will only worsen. First, the existential breakdown of rich countries during the assault on national political power by global forces. Second, the volatility of the poorest countries and regions, now that the departure of cold war-era strongmen has revealed their true fragility. And third, the illegitimacy of an “international order” that has never aspired to any kind of “society of nations” governed by the rule of law."

 I could not agree more with his conclusions that action on our part "is not a small endeavour: it will take the better part of this century. We do not know yet where it will lead. All we can lay out now is a set of directions." His suggested actions include:

  • global financial regulation. 
  • global flexible democracy
  • finding new conceptions of citizenship
These are challenging agendas. Do they go far enough? I fear they are necessary but not sufficient.  So what would I add?  Please wait for the book.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The systemic implications of algorithms

Virginia Eubanks, a professor of political science at the University at Albany in upstate New York is the author of several books that seem well worth reading: Automating Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the PoorDigital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age; and is co-editor, with Alethia Jones, of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. It was while she was writing her latest book book that the power of algorithms became shockingly evident.  She is interviewed on BBC's 'The Why Factor' in this compelling clip: How do you fight a nameless, faceless algorithm? This clip is in turn part of a larger program on the BBC World Service called: Machines and Morals.