Hypernormalization in a Prismatic reality.

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How to fight it.

There is a popular photo app called Prisma that takes a user’s smartphone photo and passes it through a series of filters and automatic rotoscoping to produce something between a Roman mosaic and a watercolor painting. This manipulation of reality creates works of art from what may otherwise be mundane, poorly composed photos–a boon for those of us who have never taken a good photo in their lives. “Artists beware! AI is coming for your paintbrush too…” warns a Techcrunch review quoted on the app’s website. But far from simply automating the jobs of artisans, something technology has done for centuries under capitalism, Prisma takes our drab reality and makes it appear as an image on a fun house mirror. This isn’t so much a They Live scenario where we are lied to directly (though that certainly happens), as it is a deliberate move on our part. We fracture the image in front of us, preferring a more compelling version, something that is ready made for sharing on the networked world of social media, and the curated lives we offer there.

Adam Curtis’s recent Hypernormalization posits that, more and more, our experiences are becoming uncoupled with the picture of the world that are presented by the media elites and governments and mediated by traditional systems of power. And we know this, but there is little we feel we can do, because any standards of behavior or mechanisms of power checking are completely undermined. Bankers break the law and do horrible things resulting in millions losing their jobs and homes, but they aren’t prosecuted. Cops shoot unarmed blacks in the back and plant evidence, all on camera, but face no jail time. Wars are waged on lies around terror or good western morals, but when the lies are exposed and the reports point to those responsible, the purveyors are let off and hailed as elder statesmen. And to all of us, the results come off as completely expected and normal; to have a chain of cause and effect would be the truly striking thing. Hypernormalization is our individual and collective attempt to make order of the barrage of nonsense–to accept not just the unacceptable, but the impossible.

For Curtis, who released his film in October, a figure like Donald Trump (and his electoral success) fits perfectly into this off-kilter bizarro-world. Trump called the bluff of the traditional elite and their pantomime grasp of power. He used the sheer confusion of the Prismatic apparatus to rise to power, making not a straightforward case for why he should become president, as exemplar of traditional state power Hillary Clinton tried to do, but via misdirection from the linear narrative of the election and sometimes a complete rejection of recent historical facts. Trump is the affirmation of this new disjointed reality, in a Gibsonian sense, he is the living avatar of the Tessier-Ashpool family who sleep while the twin algorithms of facebook and financial capitalism system drive up their profits with credit and clicks.

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Understanding Shallow Libertarianism

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Introduction

When the moderator of a recent event held by the Socialists Students at the University of Cincinnati opened the floor for discussion, a libertarian in the audience was the first to raise a comment from the crowd. Though the evening’s main presentation focused on problems of war, exploitation and austerity, recent eruptions of radical activism and what political formations and openings for exist inside and outside bourgeois electoral politics, the man took aim at philosophical concepts of socialism itself. His points were made in an attempt to draw out contradictions, logical fallacies, and philosophical bankruptcy from socialists and deserve a response. Even if these comments were shallow and evoked laughter from the audience, we should put the commenter’s political and historical naivety aside and be prepared to answer to claims such as these. The statements, which were directed more at the rest of the event’s audience than its speakers in the front of the room, meant to draw the attention to apparent drawbacks of socialist ideas and towards right-libertarianism, and had three main points:

First, he referred to the work of Jerry Cohen, a late philosopher and socialist. Cohen, the man claimed, said that in a socialist society, an “eye lottery” would subject the citizens to randomly give up an eye in case another member of that society was lacking sight.

Second, he warned the students in the room that in a socialist society, the government (or some ruling body—I can’t remember the specific organ) would decide what they would study and what work they would do, resulting in the summary dismantling of any freedom we might enjoy today.

After a response from the speaker, the man’s third claim was that those in the room misunderstood the system we live under. He insisted that he too had reservations about the economy we live under, but that we misidentified this system and socialism wasn’t the correct alternative. He called the broken system “crony capitalism,” under which a small group of wealthy people have managed to gain political power and control of the state and it’s tools, especially the IRS, and were able to direct great pools of money and resources away from where individual citizens might spend it given fuller control over their wealth and profits. A “pure” stateless capitalism would be much superior, he insisted, and in these pure conditions state functions, such as welfare and laws about a minimum wage, would take the form of charitable donations.

These points display both a lack of understanding of  what constitutes socialism and a questionably analysis of the capitalist system both as it exists today and as it functions theoretically. They also come straight from the Mises Institute, which is a right-wing think tank advocating libertarian capitalism. A cursory search of Google for “G.A. Cohen eye lottery” returns a 1998 review of Cohen from the Institute itself and countless blogs that reference this review. Read the piece if you wish, but I wish less to engage with this review than to pivot to the nature of the night’s discussion and what can be drawn from the points made and pose some suggestions for responses for comrades.

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The Tragedy of the Alaska Commons

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A tragedy of the commons is occurring in Cincinnati. It’s not the tragedy that economics students learn in courses extolling capitalist forms of resource distribution. This tragedy is real–90 units of permanent supportive housing for people who experience chronic homelessness likely won’t be built on Alaska Avenue in Avondale. And if past experience is any indication of the future, it will be an uphill battle to find a location for the housing anywhere in the city.

The plan to build the housing, called the “Commons at Alaska,” had already passed through several levels of oversight, including garnering the blessing of city council and several other groups both large and small. However, the process was stalled at an April 29th meeting of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which oversees subsidized housing projects in Hamilton county, when representatives from National Church Residences (NCR), who were behind the proposed housing, asked for 60 to 90 days to re-evaluate the project, primarily to find a new location.

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Capitalist Innovation

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Punk Johnny Cash’s piece on innovation is a good reminder that the ability to create is not a historical trait unique to the capitalist system. While I agree with the conclusions–of the need for a reorganization of society around cooperation, a society where, as Marx wrote, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”–its worth taking a closer look at the individual points.

First, PJC insists that innovation occurs not because of capitalism, but despite it, as if innovation is held back by capitalism. While the rest of the piece supports this to a point (the idea that an egalitarian economy would allow the free time for all to create for the benefit of all), the notion that capitalism cannot be a genuine place for innovation falls short. This is not meant to be a defense of capitalism, but a critical examination of the system. Why has appeared to be so successful if that is not the case? I am not necessarily countering PJC’s main point when I argue that much of that “success” has been because of a kind of innovation that only capitalism can foster.

As Marx and others stressed, capitalist endeavors require growth in order to stay alive, and the development of new technologies is part of that growth. Capital, as a relation, functions such that a venture’s return must exceed its investment, Marx illustrates this relation as M-C-M. Money-Commodity-Money. The commodity should sell for more money than was invested in it. Generally, that excess money comes from the exploitation of labor, where the productive worker is paid for only a portion of the total time they spend in the firm. The excess may also come from the investment in fixed capital–machines, factory space, etc–that more efficiently use the worker’s time. By paying workers less for their time and their output, the firm is able to extract more excess value (closely related to, but different than, profit) out of the process. In this sense, capitalism relies on innovation in order to grow. In other words, innovation is central to capitalism.

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