Capital Behaviors: The Subtle Art of Tyranny

John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in Surveillance Capitalism: Monopoly-Finance Capital, the Military-Industrial Complex, and the Digital Age offer us a view onto the world of monopoly capitalism. The rise of neoliberal Western economies that began after WWII came about according to them through the consolidation of surveillance technologies in three domains: (1) militarism/imperialism/security; (2) corporate-based marketing and the media systems; and (3) the world of financialization.

It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who first observed the dark horizon of  the socio-technological convergence of the Military Industrial Complex after the war, realizing that an enormous expansion of the national security system, bringing civilian scientists, industry, and contractors within its expanding and secretive arms of government and corporate affairs had come about due to the needs of defense and securitization of Economy and State after the war. Bringing together the academy, sciences, and industry a nexus was formed that could be aligned to both military and peacetime agendas, institutionalized and controlled by both military and governmental agencies in cooperation to assure a mutual plan for effective research, development, and implementation in times of peace and war. It would be during this era that the rise of Think Tanks, NGO’s, and many other well funded agencies both governmental and corporate would take on a wider bureaucratic presence as Empire became a global agenda under the guise of spreading democracy.

Next the Council of Economic Advisors and the National Security Council were to construct the foundation of the U.S. warfare state. Truman formed the ultra-shadowy National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952 as an arm of the military charged with conducting clandestine electronic monitoring of potential foreign (and domestic) subversive activities. Following Keynesian “guns and butter” principles they began a huge rearmament program which included a Cold War strategy at its core with the beginnings of a propaganda program to ensure that the populace would foot the bill. They quote  Harry Magdoff who ironically noted at the end of his Age of Imperialism in 1969: “Just as the fight against Communism helps the search for profits, so the search for profits helps the fight against Communism. What more perfect harmony of interests could be imagined?”

In their classic work Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy’s, Monopoly Capital, published in 1966, saw militarism and imperialism as motivated first and foremost by the needs of the U.S. empire, and secondly by its role (along with the sales effort) as one of the two main absorbers—beyond capitalist consumption and investment—of the rising economic surplus generated by the economy.

During the Viet Nam era with massive protests against the draft and war both within the military and civilian population strategists within the military-industrial complex realized they’d need to discover better methods of command and control if they were to implement their economic and global push toward Empire. As Foster and McChesney relate it any attempts to police a world empire were two requirements: First, a widespread propaganda campaign to make empire appear benevolent, necessary, essentially democratic, inherently “American,” and therefore unquestionable in legitimate debate. For an empire, the flip side of propaganda is popular ignorance. Second,  there is the stick to go with the propaganda carrot—a heavy reliance on covert intervention in the periphery and domestic surveillance and oppression.

I could spend a full essay on just the history of propaganda, the rise of public relations, marketing and consumer preemptive strategies, sales and behavioral economics, etc. But for the moment it became apparent in the 1950’s that the populace would need to be shaped and converted to this new consumer culture. So that as they say marketing evolved quickly into a highly organized system of customer surveillance, targeting propaganda, and psychological manipulation of populations. After the invention of the TV it would become central to the new consumer economy as the mediatainment device par excellence for ad campaigns introducing and enticing customers to buy new products, services, travel, life-styles, etc. As they’ll tell us “the government readily handed over the airwaves for free to corporations, while maintaining only the most minimal regulatory structure aimed primarily at protecting rather than restraining commercial privileges”.

The essay on the Monthly Review site is worth a read, and I’m not going to go over every detail of its historical account. They speak of the rise of the Internet out of ARPANET and how Eisenhower saw within this early version of the internet the corruption of government at the hands of private capital, arguing that government should “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influenceby the military industrial complex,” and to warn that society could become “captive of a scientific technological elite” under circumstances where “the power of money is ever present.”

Foster and McChesney will the explore the rise of surveillance society and domestic forms in particular that came about during the Viet Nam war era with the various internal strife and anti-war protest movements. How the first computers and data systems were brought online to gather intel on domestic targets by the NSA and other organizations. How both Johnson and then Nixon developed  Project MINARET, in which the NSA tapped the electronic communications of leading U.S. critics of the war, including over 1,600 U.S. citizens who were put on the NSA watch list. How Project ECHELON, conducted jointly with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (collectively known as the Five Eyes), aimed at the interception of civilian telecommunications conveyed by means of communication satellites. Along with the abuse of the NSA and other agencies: Aside from collecting national security information, the NSA has been involved in commercial espionage on behalf of corporations, including stealing technology. In 1994 the NSA and the CIA turned over data that caused the European Airbus Industries to lose lucrative international contracts to their U.S. counterparts.

Foster and McChesney also provide a short history of the financialization of the American Economy and the rise of Globalization. With the convergence of the internet, economy, and destruction of regulatory controls over the financial sphere they describe this Behemoth superstructure’s domination as the result of a seemingly permanent financial-bubble prone economy. Such an economy was unstable and parasitic to the extreme, with constant fears of financial meltdown, and hence a growing role of central bankers as lenders of last resort, intervening periodically to prop up an increasingly fragile financial system.

As the internet became a fixture in the global arena for the new surveillance society initiatives by global capitalists Foster and McChesney will tell us “surveillance capitalism went far deeper, like advertising and national security, it had an insatiable need for data. Its profitable expansion relied heavily on the securitization of household mortgages; a vast extension of credit-card usage; and the growth of health insurance and pension funds, student loans, and other elements of personal finance. Every aspect of household income, spending, and credit was incorporated into massive data banks and evaluated in terms of markets and risk.”

In fact it has become so pervasive that the largest data broker in the United States today, the marketing giant Acxiom has 23,000 computer servers processing in excess of 50 trillion data transactions annually. It keeps on average some 1,500 data points on more than 200 million Americans, in the form of “digital dossiers” on each individual, attaching to each person a thirteen-digit code that allows them to be followed wherever they go, combining online and offline data on individuals. (Foster and McChesney )

Financialization—or the long-term growth of speculation on financial assets relative to GDP—meant the intrusion of finance into all aspects of life, requiring new extensions of surveillance and information control as forms of financial risk management. As the economy became more financialized, it became increasingly vulnerable to financial meltdowns, increasing risk perceptions on the part of investors and the perceived need for risk management, encryption of data, and security. (Foster and McChesney )

The digitalization of surveillance has radically changed the nature of advertising. The old system of advertisers purchasing ad space or time in media with the hope of getting the media user to notice the advertisement while she sought out news or entertainment is becoming passé. Advertisers no longer need to subsidize journalism or media content production to reach their target audiences. Instead, they can pinpoint their desired audience to a person and locate them wherever they are online (and often where they are in physical space) due to ubiquitous surveillance. The premise of the system is that there is no effective privacy. (Foster and McChesney )

These monopolistic corporate entities readily cooperate with the repressive arm of the state in the form of its military, intelligence, and police functions. The result is to enhance enormously the secret national security state, relative to the government as a whole. (Foster and McChesney )

In 2014 Google announced that it was buying Titan Aerospace, a U.S.-based start-up company for building drones which cruise at the very edge of the atmosphere. Facebook meanwhile bought the UK corporation, Ascenta, which specializes in making high-altitude solar drones. Such drones would allow the spread of the Internet to new areas. The goal was to capitalize on a new military technology and create larger global Internet monopolies, while expanding the military-digital complex.  (Foster and McChesney )

The crossover between military and industrial-digital and other old school corporations has brought a convergence of telematics and tyrannical monopolies. As they tell it a “kind of linguistic convergence mirrored the centralized structure of monopoly-finance capital in the age of digital surveillance with “securitization” increasingly standing simultaneously for a world dominated by: (1) financial derivatives trading, (2) a network of public and private surveillance, (3) the militarization of security-control systems, and (4) the removal of judicial processes from effective civilian control.” (Foster and McChesney )

For Foster and McChesney there are signs of decay and threat within the Empire. With the rise of weak AI, Cyberwar, Hacking, malware, breakdown in circuits and nodes of the infrastructure the Empire is vulnerable. As they’ll tell it from a left diagnosis: “Its very economic exploitation of the world population, as well as its own, has left the U.S. imperial system open to attack, producing ever greater attempts at control. These are signs of a dying empire.”

Yet, I wonder if they underestimate the beast? As Shoshana Zuboff in The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism will suggest Big Data is taking over not going under, and data can be used for dynamic real-time driver behavior modification triggering punishments  (real-time rate hikes, financial penalties, curfews, engine lock-downs) or rewards (rate discounts, coupons, gold stars to redeem for future benefits).

The notion of Behavioral Economics has been around for a while now, but combining it with the internet to change behavior, or implementing it in sensors, appliances, or what we now term the “Internet of things” is become a part of the new global strategy to capture consumer desires and direct their behaviors. As the CEO of Allstate Insurance wants to be like Google. He says, “There are lots of people who are monetizing data today. You get on Google, and it seems like it’s free. It’s not free. You’re giving them information; they sell your information.  Could we, should we, sell this information we get from people driving around to various people and capture some additional profit source…? It’s a long-term game.” (see Zuboff)

As Zuboff will remark the “game is no longer about sending you a mail order catalogue or even about targeting online advertising. The game is selling access to the real-time flow of your daily life –your reality—in order to directly influence and modify your behavior for profit. This is the gateway to a new universe of monetization opportunities: restaurants who want to be your destination. Service vendors who want to fix your brake pads. Shops who will lure you like the fabled Sirens. The “various people” are anyone, and everyone who wants a piece of your behavior for profit. Small wonder, then, that Google recently announced that its maps will not only provide the route you search but will also suggest a destination.”

She’ll argue that we’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.  This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making. I am thinking of matters that include, but are not limited to, the sanctity of the individual and the ideals of social equality; the development of identity, autonomy, and moral reasoning; the integrity of contract, the freedom that accrues to the making and fulfilling of promises; norms and rules of collective agreement; the functions of market democracy; the political integrity of societies; and the future of democratic sovereignty.  (see Zuboff)

Further notes…. not pertinent to the above. (Interrelated issues…)

For people like Google’s Ray Kurzweil we’re entering a period when we will merge with machines, through biotech, nanotech and other technologies we will begin to see the body and mind as software/hardware in which failing organs, cells, etc. can bee reprogrammed like bits of information in a computer. The true promise of nanotechnology, says Ray Kurzweil, is that “we’ll be able to create just about anything we need in the physical world from information files with very inexpensive input materials.” 3-D and 4-D Printers will be able to print organs, design special components, etc. all from attached emails easily downloaded from our computers into personal printers that will in the coming decades become cheaper and cheaper. For Kurzweil medical breakthroughs will solve aging issues, along with VR technology that will become part of our brains software through upgrades of nanotech, all producing a society wherein people are connected 24/7 to a wireless automated system of extended information and intelligence by way of Cloud Computing that will become the Global Brain. This techno-capitalist vision is part of the new consumer propaganda system to absorb the population into the advanced surveillance society of the coming decades, by way of incentives, enticements, like longevity, health and medical plans, etc. all bound to agreements and business contracts for work, education, travel, security.

One can find this happening in products, software, and every aspect of life from education to health, sports to entertainment. B.J. Fogg in Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do will ask: Can computers change what you think and do? Can they motivate you to stop smoking, persuade you to buy insurance, or convince you to join the Army? And, answer, saying, “Yes, they can,” says Dr. B.J. Fogg, director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. Fogg has coined the phrase “Captology”(an acronym for computers as persuasive technologies) to capture the domain of research, design, and applications of persuasive computers. In a book, based on nine years of research in captology, Dr. Fogg argues how Web sites, software applications, and mobile devices can be used to change people’s attitudes and behavior. As the blurb states it: “Technology designers, marketers, researchers, consumers—anyone who wants to leverage or simply understand the persuasive power of interactive technology—will appreciate the compelling insights and illuminating examples found inside.”

Nir Eyal in Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products what he terms the Hook Model—a four-step process embedded into the products of many successful companies to subtly encourage customer behavior. Through consecutive “hook cycles,” these products reach their ultimate goal of bringing users back again and again without depending on costly advertising or aggressive messaging. (from the Blurb)

Others like Johah Berger in Contagious: Why Things Catch On will popularize the notion of why people don’t listen to advertisements, but will listen to their peers. And try to answer: Why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others? Why are some stories and rumors more infectious? And what makes online content go viral?

Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine will follow Richard Dawkins, who coined the term “meme” for a unit of culture that is transmitted via imitation and naturally “selected” by popularity or longevity. Dawkins used memes to show that the theory known as Universal Darwinism, according to which “all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities,” applies to more than just genes. Now, building on his ideas, psychologist Blackmore contends that memes can account for many forms of human behavior that do not obviously serve the “selfish gene.” For example, a possible gene-meme co-evolution among early humans could have selected for true altruism among humans: people who help others (whether or not they are related) can influence them and thus spread their memes. Meme transmission would also explain some thorny problems in sociobiology.

In The Watchman’s Rattle Rebecca Costa sociobiologist who offers an evolutionary explanation for current events and emerging trends argues that conditions are evolving faster than our brains, so we are unable, with our limited gray matter, to solve the problems of an incredibly complex world. She gives us a history lesson in how the Mayan, Roman, and Khmer empires crashed because as each society grew in complexity, the fallible human beings that ran the show were unable to adapt. Instead of basing their solutions on knowledge and fact, they substituted theological and other irrational belief systems that masked their sense of fear and impotence, giving false hope and leading to catastrophe. Costa observes that humans still don’t take the time to distinguish facts from beliefs.

Applying this notion of information overload, Big Data, memes, complexity, our human limits or conditions of adaptability along with all the competing forces from government, corporate, military, industrial systems it is no wonder in our world that we are at the point of collapse, or depression, panic, schizophrenic implosion. More and more external systems of control are beginning to invasively take over our physical and mental systems, capture our desires, shape and modulate our lives through incentives and punishments. J.G. Ballard once spoke of how people in our postmodern complex societies were becoming numb, apathetic, distant, withdrawn, more voyeuristic and media driven like automatons passively watching on as reality happens to other people.

Yet, others disconnect from the machine, enter into more primitive relations, inhabiting sub-cultures and time-periods of existence that fuse tribal, ethnic, and sado-masochistic approaches of viral impact and violence to remember what it is to feel, to be alive. Others commit suicide or act violently against the world at large, condemning the world for what they’ve become. The so-called acts of madness and rage of young people on mass killing sprees, etc.

To see how we are being absorbed into a vast impersonal machine and network society where every last ounce of our consumer bred lives will be datafied, bled of its information, accosted by behavioral modifications and led like sheep to the slaughter is to realize one is a trapped animal becoming a machine.

4 thoughts on “Capital Behaviors: The Subtle Art of Tyranny

  1. You kind of went off the deep end towards the end, going a thinker a paragraph, but maybe I’m just reading this too late at night, it’s hard to keep track of all of these systems. Otherwise I’m glad to see Robert McChesney is still doing great work and I’m glad you posted this.

    Liked by 1 person

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