Sunday, July 13, 2014

Over my dead cold propaganda

One of the biggest lures of the left/right divide is that there's a very contemporary historical war to relate it to. A huge, epic war between two clearly defined actors, each embodying a particular side.

The cold war.

It isn't hard to understand why. On the one side we have the US, the staunch defenders of capitalism and liberty. On the other side we have Soviet, the staunch defenders of communism and the proletariat. Between these two sides, war. You don't need to exercise great mental agility to see this as a war between right and left.

The biggest problem with seeing the world in the light of twentieth century propaganda is that things get murky. Especially when what actually happened is a much more complicated than a good vs evil narrative, and even more so when the belligerents over time grew to resemble each other more and more.

Such is the nature of things, whenever a coin wars with itself over which side is heads or tails.

The cold war was, to a large extent, modernity's war against itself.

Modernity is, to put it simply, the way the modern world has tended to develop. It has developed towards greater centralization, more standardization, an ever increasing bureaucratization, brutal increases in exploitative productivity, and on the whole towards greater and larger systems in general. A development that might seem abstract, but which becomes that much clearer when the present is compared with the past.

Not long ago, migration wasn't a complicated issue. There weren't any central authorities keeping track of who was a citizen and who wasn't, and if you ventured far enough away, you could generally outrun the reach of any authority worth running from. If you could get your physical body to some place and survive there, you lived there now. No matter if it was a village or continent away. If you could get there, you could move there. All you needed to do was to stay put. If the locals could be bothered to accept or tolerate you as a person, that is.

These days, it's a different story. You need to pay rent even if you're not physically close to your place of residence, and should you not pay, the debt will hunt you down wherever you go. It will even accumulate for as long as the contract lasts. And wherever you go, you're gonna have to give an account for where you've come from. In the form of a passport. Those who check your documentation will then look up your name in their systems, and ask your home country for confirmation that you really are who you say you are. If your passport picture and your bureaucratic alter ego looks somewhat similar, you'll eventually be let through the checkpoint by a salaried clerk who's one and only mission is to see that the rules are followed. Nothing personal.

The difference between these two scenarios is, in short, modernity. With all the centralization, standardization, bureaucratization and streamlining that goes with it.

Both the US and Soviet adopted these developments. Not least in the building and maintaining of enormous military machines. You can't, after all, just give people guns and tell them to be ready for battle. You need a system of bureaucracy and logistics to keep things running. Bureaucrats need to administrate such things like salaries, procurements, real estate, warehousing, distribution channels, construction projects, local municipal legal concerns - the list is longer than the Berlin wall. Neither soldiers, orders or ammunition gets to the front on their own, and you need a robust social and physical infrastructure in place to keep them getting to the front according to schedule.

Over time, these systems became more complicated and specialized. More and more tasks were delegated to people possessing specific skill sets, and this bureaucratized into academic requirements. Administering supply chains required one kind of specialized education. repairing tank engines required another, building bridges that could withstand military activity required another.

There is a pattern to this. Centralization, bureaucratization, standardization. The systems are getting larger, more complex.

The US and Soviet were indeed different. But fundamentally, they were two possible outcomes of the same process. Two sides of the same coin. Which, to be sure, is more visible today than ever, with the NSA going all in on becoming the most centralized and specialized organization in history. Just about everyone has a file in their archives. Modernity won the cold war.

It is, to be sure, tempting to see the right/left divide in the context of the cold war. Simple images are easy to understand, and that's why they're used so frequently as propaganda tools.

Both the right and the left relate themselves to modernity. The difference between them is what they intend to do with it.

The right are all about making the systems as efficient as possible, in order to reap their benefits. Adapt education to labor markets, make the labor market more efficient at maximizing exploitation of resources, remove barriers to the flow of capital - make it so that nothing stands between potential and actual efficiency, and use the excess profits that is generated from this to make things happen.

The left is all about resisting modernity. Not dismantle it, mind, but using it for things that are not inherently efficient. Or to soften the negative side effects that comes from the more brutal sides of modernity. Work safety and health regulations, for instance, might make workplaces less profitable, but they also makes it that much more likely that workers survive being efficiently exploited. As below, so above: the general gist is to make the systems work for the people, not the other way around.

This is, to be sure, harder to make propaganda out of. Both the right and the left want to use the benefits of a centralized, bureaucratized state apparatus to achieve their political goals. The difference being in how they want to use it. One way or the other - both ways are modernity. Modernity wins this round as well.

Which makes the Cold War framework that much more appealing. The right can keep on asking the brutally irrelevant question "do you really want to return to the Soviet days, leftie?", while the left can point to the fact that those days are over and that learning has happened since then. Neither confronting the question of why we need to become even more efficient at exploiting people, and why we are exploiting them at all.

History might have moved on, but why let a good propaganda narrative go to waste?

Originally published July 12, 2014

[A translator's note: right/left means different things in different national contexts. In case of confusion, the 'right' here roughly corresponds to the liberal tradition following John Locke and his ilk, whilst the 'left' roughly corresponds to socialism after Marx, and/or the Scandinavian models.]

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