All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities.
The world has indeed got richer, but any such shift in morals and values is hard to detect. Money and the value system around its acquisition are fully intact. Greed is still good.
The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.
”This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition. The secret ingredient seems to be the positive harnessing of the general human impulse to envy. As he says, “If this kind of egalitarianism is a precondition for us to embrace a post-labor world, then I suspect it may prove a very hard nut to crack.” There’s a lot that we could learn from the oldest extant branch of humanity, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to put the knowledge into effect. A socially positive use of envy—now, that would be a technology almost as useful as fire.
Life in the age of facial recognition
Conferring legal personhood on purely synthetic entities is a very real legal possibility, one under consideration presently by the European Union. We show here that such legislative action would be morally unnecessary and legally troublesome. While AI legal personhood may have some emotional or economic appeal, so do many superficially desirable hazards against which the law protects us. We review the utility and history of legal fictions of personhood, discussing salient precedents where such fictions resulted in abuse or incoherence. We conclude that difficulties in holding “electronic persons” accountable when they violate the rights of others outweigh the highly precarious moral interests that AI legal personhood might protect.
Only when it is abstracted (that is, separated from the referent, and disembodied) can monetary dynamics be automated, submitted to the rules of a non-referential sphere of signification and the attribution of value. Information takes the place of things, and finance – which once used to be the sphere where productive projects could meet capital, and where capital could meet productive projects – emancipates itself from the constraints of physical production: the process of capital valorization (increase of money invested) no longer passes through the creation of use value. As the referent is cancelled and financial accumulation is enabled by the mere circulation of money, the production of goods becomes superfluous to financial expansion. The accumulation of abstract value depends on the subjugation of the population to debt, and on the predation of existing resources.
This emancipation of capital accumulation from the production of useful things results in a process of annihilation of social welfare. In the sphere of financial economy, the acceleration of circulation and valorization implies the elimination of the concrete usefulness of products because the faster information circulates, the faster value is accumulated. Purely financial information is the fastest of things, while the production and distribution of goods is slow. The process of the realization of capital, namely the exchange of goods with money, slows the pace of monetary accumulation. The same happens in the field of communication: the less meaning the message has the faster it moves, given that production and interpretation of meaning take time, while the circulation of pure information without meaning is instantaneous.
In the last twenty years, computers, electronic exchanges, dark pools, flash orders, multiple exchanges, alternative trading venues, direct access brokers, OTC derivatives and high-frequency traders have totally changed the financial landscape and particularly the relation between human operators and self-directing algorithmic automatons. The more you remove the reference to physical things, to physical resources and the body, the more you can accelerate the circulation of financial flows. This is why, at the end of this process of abstraction-acceleration, value does not emerge from a physical relationship between work and things, but rather from the infinite self-replication of virtual exchanges of nothing with nothing.
Peer through the lens of neoliberalism and you see more clearly how the political thinkers most admired by Thatcher and Reagan helped shape the ideal of society as a kind of universal market (and not, for example, a polis, a civil sphere or a kind of family) and of human beings as profit-and-loss calculators (and not bearers of grace, or of inalienable rights and duties). Of course the goal was to weaken the welfare state and any commitment to full employment, and – always – to cut taxes and deregulate. But “neoliberalism” indicates something more than a standard rightwing wish list. It was a way of reordering social reality, and of rethinking our status as individuals.
Still peering through the lens, you see how, no less than the welfare state, the free market is a human invention. You see how pervasively we are now urged to think of ourselves as proprietors of our own talents and initiative, how glibly we are told to compete and adapt. You see the extent to which a language formerly confined to chalkboard simplifications describing commodity markets (competition, perfect information, rational behaviour) has been applied to all of society, until it has invaded the grit of our personal lives, and how the attitude of the salesman has become enmeshed in all modes of self-expression.
In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.