Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Shrinking the Technosphere, Part II

[Part I]

[Réduire la techno-sphère, Partie II]

Political technologies have three main goals:

1. Changing the rules of the game between participants in the political process.
2. Introducing into the mass consciousness new concepts, values, opinions and convictions.
3. Direct manipulation of human behavior through mass media and administrative methods.

Political technologies pursue these tactical goals in accordance with higher, strategic imperatives, and it is only the noble nature of these higher imperatives that can justify the use of such high-handed, nondemocratic means. Yes, the ends justify the means—once in a while. It is better to save humanity and the natural world through nondemocratic means than to let it go extinct while adhering to strictly democratic ones.

But often the imperatives are far less than noble. They can be separated into two kinds:

1. To improve everyone's welfare by pursuing the common good of the entire society, as it is understood by its best-educated, most intelligent, most decent and responsible members. Political technologies of this kind result in a virtuous cycle, building on previous successes to increase social cohesion, solidarity and setting the stage for great achievements. (These are the good kind.)

2. To enrich, empower and protect special interests at the expense of the rest of society. These kinds of political technologies either fail through internal contradiction, or result in a vicious cycle, in which those who benefit from them strive for ever-higher levels of selfish behavior at the expense of the rest, setting the stage for poor social outcomes, economic stagnation, mass violence and eventual civil war and political disintegration. (These are the bad kind.)

Let's take the United States as an example The United States currently has more than its fair share of the latter sort. Let's briefly review a dozen of the most important ones.

1. The fossil fuel lobby. Objective: convince the US population that catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is not occurring. Means: smear campaigns against climate scientists, injection of fake science, denigration of science as a whole, portrayal of the movement to stop catastrophic climate change as a conspiracy, etc. Shows some signs of failing through internal contradiction, as parts of South Carolina—a self-styled “conservative” state—go underwater in a so-called “thousand-year flood” (soon to be renamed a “hundred-year flood,” then “ten-year flood” and, finally, a “blub-blub-blub” flood). Unlike North Carolina, Florida (another “blub-blub-blub” state) and Wisconsin, South Carolina hasn't banned the use of the term “climate change” by state workers; not that anyone has heard them use it in any case. When political technologists start banning the use of words, you know that they are becoming desperate. At a meta-polittechnological level, when a polittechnology shows signs of failing through internal contradiction, it is often best to let things run their course. After all, what does it matter whether officials in the Carolinas or in Florida use the term “climate change” or the term “blub-blub-blub”?

2. The arms manufacturers. Objective: convince the US population that private gun ownership makes people safer, is effective in preventing government tyranny, and is a right to be defended at all costs. This too is showing some signs of failure through internal contradiction, as the number of mass shootings in the US shoots up. But the level of brainwash here is rather high, and the US authorities may find themselves forced to resort to direct manipulation to bring the situation under control (or so they would hope). This may involve some sort of mass standoff between the government and the “gun nuts,” in which the gun nuts are described as terrorists, outlawed and, in a demonstration exercise, instantaneously wiped out by the army, the navy and the air force. But this would only bring out the next layer of internal contradiction: in decisively demonstrating that owning a gun does not make one safer, and that guns are useless in preventing tyranny, the government would be forced to tacitly admit that it is, in fact a tyranny, at war with its own people. And this would undermine a number of other political technologies on which the government depends for its political survival.

3. The two-party political system, along with the lobbyists and its corporate, big-money and foreign sponsors. Objective: keep the people believing that the US is a democracy and that people have a choice. On the one hand, this technology seems to be working. A lot of the people voted for Obama (some of them twice!) and then had a difficult time facing up to the fact that he is an impostor, barely different from his predecessor, and that everything he had said to get their vote was just hopeful noise. And now a lot of these same people are ready to vote again—for some other democratic career politician making similar kinds of hopeful noise. On the other hand, this piece of political technology seems to be in rather sad shape. The party machinery seems unable to produce viable candidates. The Republicans are internally in disarray and seem especially vulnerable to being upstaged by outsiders like Trump. Moreover, most of the voters no longer identify with either party—an unnerving development for political technologists in charge of herding them toward one of the political spectrum or the other.

4. The defense contractors and the national defense establishment. Objective: justify exorbitant defense budgets by claiming that they keep the nation safe by thwarting evildoers or some such nonsense. The US has a very expensive defense establishment, but a very ineffectual one. Case in point: as the hostilities in Syria threaten to escalate, the US orders the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt out of the Persian Gulf, leaving it without a US aircraft carrier there for the first time in 6 years. The reason is simple: although very expensive and impressive looking, American aircraft carriers are only effective against very weak and disorganized adversaries. When it comes to major powers such as Russia, China and Iran they are no more than sitting ducks, being defenseless against attacks by supersonic cruise missiles and supercavitating torpedoes, which the Americans simply don't have. Such obvious signs of weakness (and there are many others) undermine the claim that defense dollars are money well spent. After a time, the message is bound to sink in that the US defense establishment produces useless military boondoggles and baseless, dreamed-up intelligence reports, resulting in a serious internal contradiction. Couple the relative impotence of American high-tech weaponry against similarly equipped adversaries with the inability or unwillingness to deploy ground troops (after the great “successes” in the meat grinders of Iraq and Afghanistan) and you have an erstwhile superpower whose ability to project force is rather circumscribed. Why, then, does it cost so much? Defeat can be had for a lot less money. A sign of desperation is the latest US initiative to drop palettes of small arms ammunition and hand grenades into the deserts of Northern Syria, hoping that some “moderate” (LOL) terrorist would find them and use them against the Syrian government.

The list goes on but, for the sake of brevity, and as an exercise for the reader, I will let the reader fill in the details about the remaining examples of bad political technologies that are found in the US. The information is not hard to find. Ask yourself whether these technologies will fail through internal contradiction, by triggering a wider conflict, or by causing widespread degeneracy in the population they afflict.

5. The medical industry. Objective: keep people convinced that private health insurance is necessary, that exorbitant medical costs are justified, that socialized medicine is somehow evil, and that they are getting good quality medical care in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

6. The higher education industry. Objective: keep people convinced that higher education in the US is a good value in spite of its exorbitant costs, the student debt crisis, and the fact that over half of recent university and college graduates have been unable to find professional employment.

7. The prison-industrial complex. Objective: keep people convinced that imprisoning a higher percentage of the population than did Stalin, mostly for nonviolent, victimless crimes, somehow keeps people safe, in spite of there being absolutely no evidence of that.

8. The automotive industry. Objective: keep people convinced that the private automobile is the hallmark of personal freedom while denigrating public transportation, in spite of the fact that if you factor in all of the costs and the externalities of private cars and translate them into the working hours it takes to pay for them, driving a car turns out to be slower than walking.

9. The agribusiness industry. Objective: keep people convinced that a diet made up of cheap, chemical-laden, industrially produced food is somehow acceptable in spite of the high levels of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments in which it results.

10. The financial industry. Objective: keep people convinced that their money is safe even as it disappears into an ever-expanding black hole of unrepayable debt.

11. Organized religion. Objective: keep people convinced that kowtowing to a big white man in the sky, who might send you to hell in spite of the fact that he loves you, and who, in spite of being all-powerful, always needs your money, takes precedence over using your own reason and relying on facts to find your own way in the world. Cause simple-minded people to insist that a worked-over story of the Egyptian god Horus, stuck together with bits of the Gilgamesh Epic and other ancient myths, is the word of God and the absolute literal truth. Keep alive the fiction that religious people are somehow more moral or more ethical than nonreligious people.

12. The legal system. Objective: keep people convinced that the legal system somehow produces justice instead of selling positive outcomes to the highest bidder, that feeding a huge army of well-paid lawyers is somehow worth the money, and that obeying a codex of laws so voluminous and so convoluted that is completely incomprehensible to the average person, and most lawyers, is what it means to be a good citizen.

As you see, the US has quite a parasite load of bad political technologies. Each special interest group can hire some political technologists to put together a system for them that will assure them of a disproportionately large piece of the pie to the detriment of everyone else.

This is bad enough, but bad political technologies cause an additional problem: they debilitate the minds of those they afflict. Their main objective is to keep people convinced of things that are false. Once they succeed, these people become personally invested in these falsehoods, come to identify with them, and regard any information that contradicts them either as a personal affront or, at the very least, as a source of unwelcome cognitive dissonance. This makes them impervious to good political technologies—ones that seek to convince them of things that are true and of approaches that do in fact work, and steer them in the direction of doing what is necessary. They are what Andy Borowitz called “fact-resistant humans.”

Because of its high parasite load of bad political technologies, the population of the US may not be worth the trouble when it comes to putting together good political technologies, such as the one to prevent catastrophic climate change. A lot of these bad political technologies are poised to fail, either through internal contradiction, or because of their deleterious effects on the people held in their spell, so it makes sense to wait.

Also, the problem of the US being a major polluter and climate disrupter may resolve itself: the US stands to suffer immensely from climate change, with the west coast and the southwest running out of water, the south decimated by heat waves and the eastern seaboard disappearing under the waves. Keep in mind that it amounts to less than 5 percent of the world's population—a significant number, but not significant enough to hold up the rest of the planet.

Trying to negotiate with the US when it comes to preventing catastrophic climate change is starting to seem like a waste of time. Why should the 95 percent wait for the 5 percent to dig a deep enough hole for themselves? But what wouldn't be a waste of time? This is the question we will take up next.


MigrantWorker said...

Good afternoon mr Orlov,

Funny that a call for protecting the biosphere would come from the leader of a prominent oil-exporting country, eh?

...well, not quite - if you look beyond the obvious. This particular oil-exporting country is also: finding oil exports less profitable, possibly due to manipulation of world oil markets by hostile powers; recovering from dismemeberment resulting from a similar occurrence in recent past; facing a possibility of losing a major buyer of its oil; blessed with a rich tradition of science and innovation; directed by a leadership popular enough to stand a chance of implementing such sweeping reforms; increasingly seen as an alternative, indeed an improvement, to the current world order.

Now if you put all that together, the conclusion is:

There may well never be a better place, or a better time.


musingsfromthefringe said...

Hi Dmitry -- I've been reading through the beginning of Ivan Illich's "Tools for Conviviality" recently, and I can see a good bit of his analysis of modern society in this piece. We (the West, and particularly the US) have gone so far off the deep end of abstraction and "professionalization" (as opposed to vernacular approaches that were proven to work over centuries) that we cannot possibly achieve our stated goals, as they bear no resemblance to reality. Confronted with this dynamic, rather than retreating from abstraction and "professionalization," our elites instead double down on the same failed approaches.

While the work of people on the margins to circumvent these boondoggles gives me hope, I fail to see how a critical mass will step away absent a serious collapse of the status quo.

NowhereMan said...

I really love the thrust of this series of posts, even if it means (or perhaps because it means) treating America and most Americans as a pathology to be contained, rather than the self-proclaimed "leader of the free world" it boldly trumpets itself to be. It didn't have to turn out this way, but with the fall of the USSR in 1991 the US has stupidly doubled down on one supremely arrogant decision after another, isolating itself more and more, until where in the current day it resembles nothing so much as a rabid cur in the late stages of mental delirium. The best course of action for those of means or ability is likely to get out before the collapse commences in earnest, but for most of us, me included, that simply won't be possible. Oh well, we've made a fine mess of things all these years for everyone else, so it's only fitting that our sins be revisited on us and ours in return before we go, what with "divine retribution" being such a popular concept here and all.

Chris Smith said...

Mr. Orlov:

As an attorney in the good ol' US of A, let me say that your description of our legal system in #12 is exactly correct.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Just so everyone is clear, this has nothing to do with quantum nanobiomimetics or any other sort of vaporous techno-grandiose mental masturbation.

Bo Modén said...

Thank you Orlov for this piece ! It actually introduce some hope ! But how to get rid of the "lunatic fringe, the superrich" who are leading the race toward global suicide ?

We are quite short of time i think .

System1 said...

Yet another thought provoking piece. Thanks D. I'm a little confused about the point claiming cars are slower than walking. Can someone run me through the maths as I cone up with about 15mph for cars (when I include all externalities I can think of).


AntEater said...

System1, Do a google search for "On Energy and Equity" by Ivan Illich. It's a good read and lays out the basic reasoning that Dmitri is referring to. I've found some more detailed mappings of the figures that yield similar results in terms of MPH but I can't recall the sources now. 15mph still puts autos close to bicycles.

Jef Jelten said...

Every solution impoverishes a goodly sized chunk of the population and this is the #1 reason nothing can get done. The group of people (TPTB) who can actually implement solutions are the ones who are most adamant about not being impoverished so they certainly will not propose solutions other than those that enrich themselves.

In fact this is exactly what is happening. We have mitigation occurring right now through impoverishing the 99% off the economic ladder and into oblivion while TPTB become ever more wealthy and therefore more able to "survive" or so they think.

This is the only process of mitigation that is doable because for some strange reason we all accept it, at least for now.


What a nice list, Dmitry! Very concise and to the point. I fancy adding one item to it to make it a cozy total of 13: Social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Although partially fitting under the medical system category, this aspect deserves its own mentioning. Propaganda-induced widespread reliance on THE-RAPISTS for guidance and moral support in dealing with everyday problems. Keep the population convinced that their personal and social problems cannot be solved without the support of highly priced "qualified" therapists who are blessed with the clairvoyance of knowing that "loving oneself" is the main requirements for achieving sustainable long-term inner bliss aka "confidence", regardless of one's social or personal circumstances. Objective: Eradicate common sense, ensure role reversal for young people to keep them from forming happy sexual relationships, induce infidelities and casual sex, promote mental power games, destabilize families in order to keep population stressed and anxious while having them convinced that pampering oneself is inseparable from truly loving oneself, hence infusing consumerism with the sacred powers of Religion.

scott said...

Currently reading your book, "Reinventing Collapse," it's excellent.

About this essay. Curiously absent from your assailing private gun ownership in point #2 - and I find it odd that you consistently display such consistent contempt for such a thing - are two key points.

1. Mass shootings and their relationship between ubiquitous distribution of mind- and behavior-altering drugs. A glaring omission on your part. Oversight?

2. Gun ownership means less in light of the fact that:

a) The State has armed its "law enforcement" officers with body armor, automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and other military weapons of war, successfully establishing a extreme monopoly of force.

b) Firearms properly employed will indeed keep one safe, but the legal system is devised so as to punish Citizens acting in self-defense. Their is a plethora of consequences for anyone acting to defend themselves, criminal and civil.

I remain disappointed by your ad hominem attacks (i.e., "gun nuts") on civilian weapons ownership, and wonder why you persist. Your native Russia has strict laws against such possession and use of firearms, yet I do not see you in any hurry to go back.

*Edit: I'll be quite surprised if you post this comment in toto.

Jonathan said...


I don't think it's quite as nakedly self-interested as that, unless you might be mistaking "pop"ular science for science and "pop"ular psychology for psychology. The mental health industry isn't driven by individual interests so much as class interests. I believe their interests are in promoting the status quo order of bourgeois society, for reasons including but not even remotely limited to their special stature as a caregiver crypto-parent figure, enforcer of outcomes and farmer of contented livestock, and in pathologizing dissent from that order. That such an order happens to require dysfunctional behavior from its components in order to survive, let alone function, predates the psychiatric discipline.

Consumer-settler culture is more or less the hammer of the Western bourgeoisie against the non-compliant nails of self-organizing relations. The political technology of sexual control, whether it calls for market-mediated libertinism or oaths of asceticism, has a long history of misuse leading to large and small atrocities such as surplus population, systemic violence, and an incapacity to critical thought. On that basis I can not condone its use by/on/against peoples without their assent (though I am silent on whether Gadhafi's last terrible moments ought to be repaid to their sponsors 100:1 livestreamed).

Really, what is it to you whether my hypothetical wife and I play whatever reindeer games with our hypothetical married neighbors, as long as we remember where our respective homes are and give the community exactly however many functional spawn to which it feels itself entitled? Please state your actual losses under such a situation, exclusive of the self-esteem of what you project onto your imaginary friend.



I agree with you that the bourgeois interests are class interests and that psychiatric discipline is a derivative of that. In that sense consumerism, i.e. spending $$ beyond the necessities, nurtures them both. I take it we are on the same page here?

"That such an order happens to require dysfunctional behavior from its components in order to survive, let alone function, predates the psychiatric discipline."

What is your definition of "dysfunctional"?

Unless your definition of "dysfunctional" is something other than the opposite of "functional", I disagree with you. For a system to survive its components need to function, i.e to be "functional". If components cease to function, hence becoming "dysfunctional", things fall apart and in the end the system ceases to exist. Are you trying to say that our system is dysfunctional to begin with? In this case I agree with you, but you still need to define "dysfunctional", or at least provide a starting point of some kind.

Your reindeer games with your neighbors do not bother me at all. In fact, my perception of them is irrelevant for the purposes of what's needed by the system. What is more relevant is whether your games are functional or dysfunctional part of the system. If you look at them from the point of view of what's good for the system, our bourgeois system, I think they are functional. The four of you are likely to spend additional $$ to facilitate your indulgences, there is a high chance you might need additional medical attention in case of an infection, for example. You also run the risk of creating new emotional issues that might further require additional spending, including "mental health" industry items such as therapists or psychiatrists. Given all that your reindeer games are quite "functional".

"Please state your actual losses under such a situation, exclusive of the self-esteem of what you project onto your imaginary friend." - you need to explain what you mean

rapier said...

I would like to interject an idea that I have developed that a fundamental difference between the West and Russia is that Russian culture mistrusts or even rejects debt. Rejects it as a panacea or as a driver of what we call growth and rejects it as a mechanism of creating wealth. Hidden in the last one is the always unstated fact that the Wests wealth is overwhelmingly based upon inflated asset values comprised of and related to debt.

Expanding on this idea it is possible to understand that the fundamental American antipathy to Russia, or Putin as is now proposed, has nothing to do with freedom but has to do with debt and finance. If debt is low then the bankers can't own the place.

It seems to me that Russia is the only place on earth that isn't a tribal culture where mistrust of debt exists. China has embraced it like no other place and time in history.

Alex said...

Dmitry and all readers, look up a book called Red Plenty. You don't have to buy it, there's an excerpt on the site and lots of goodies too.

Essentially, the USSR was well on its way to kicking the usas ass in the 1960s. In terms of well-being for the averag citizen.

Also, look up DVD set called The Unknown War. Be careful to get the full set, there are partial ones out there. It was made as a USA and Soviet collaboration in the 1970s and those Soviet citizens were far healthier and better fed than I was in the USA in the old Starving Seventies.

I have completed against russians who were recently Soviet in the 1990s. They came from a better system.

Oksana baiyul. Look her up. She became an Olympic champion. Look where she started from. She would be nothing but a crack whore in the USA.

Jim R said...

Excellent analysis and writing again, as usual.

As a 13th category of metastatic empire rot, I might suggest "intellectual property rights". I realize that this may come under the heading of "legal system", but it would seem to rate a department of its own. From pricing patented pharmaceuticals at $1000 a pill, to ruinous lawsuits against little old ladies whose IP address might have been used to download an illicit copy of some digital work, to self-signing contracts when you switch on a new computer or open a box of "software". It is far, far more grotesque than the rest of the byzantine "regulatory" system which steals your freedom and wealth.

Karl said...


Thank you for your insight and clarity on so many topics. This series is particularly interesting. I would like to ask you however. In cases such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Cuba, and others, it seems that de-localized, lightly armed resistance usually prevails when in conflict with an occupying force. You said that the government would prevail, and it seems logical given their high tech weaponry and gadgets and the level of strict top down organization, but in light of the actual historical evidence, do you feel that the US population would be more or less likely to prevail if they were armed instead of unarmed against an illegitimate government? This is just a rhetorical question of course and your opinion is what I seek, not to be right.

In the case of the US, the true price of the years of lies will fully pay off when the majority of the citizenry see the government as illegitimate in my opinion. This seeing the government as illegitimate is in effect seeing the government as an occupying force. Not only will the occupying force have to fight a guerrilla war with its own people on its own land, its very base (which is pretty fragile already) will be eroded from within. Its fall will likely follow an exponential path in my opinion. I'm not saying what comes after the collapse will be better, I suspect it will not be. However, if the population were unarmed then the government could possibly last a long time even in the face of mass shortages and hyperinflation. This assumes that they had the loyalty of the military.

I personally think that a likely, but often overlooked possibility for what comes after the disintegration of the present government, is that there will be a theocratic coup similar to the scenario told in Margaret Atwoods "The Hand Maids Tail." In this novel a small group of political insiders take over the government and impose a strict theocratic dictatorship. After reading Jeff Sharlet's investigative work which he reported in the May 2009 issue of Harpers, entitled "Jesus Killed Mohammad" and listening to his and Mikey Wiensteins interviews on Democracy Now, it seems likely that the majority of officers in the military are evangelical Christians who believe in Christian dominionism. This is a scary prospect for a Buddhist like myself so I hope that I am wrong about this speculation.

If you have the time I would love to hear your thoughts on these musings. Thanks again Dimitry.