Capitalism, Labor Unions, and Strikes

A wave of labor strikes — the scope of which has not been seen for decades — is sweeping across the United States. In fact, more than 100,000 workers are either involved in strikes or will be if threatened strikes happen. And the militancy of the strikers themselves, and of the unions, is supercharged. Members are rejecting small concessions, and leaders are even talking about the system — capitalism — in their public narratives. 

All of this occurs against a background of a general rejection of traditional work structures, low wages, and expectations of loyalty or enthusiastic labor. For entry-level jobs and wages, it's now often the case that nobody is showing up to work at all, despite the federal government cutting the most "generous" of Covid-era benefits. Ultimately, people are tired of working in conditions that inhibit their humanity. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley, says that the bosses and mainstream media are trying to frame the current conditions as a "labor" shortage. "But that’s not what’s really going on," Reich writes. "In reality, there’s a living wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health care shortage." To this, I would add a shortage of system legitimacy. People are fed up with the brutal hierarchies of capitalism and are responding en masse. 

It's not controversial, I think, to predict that these mass labor actions will win immediate gains for workers and their families, including for those workers who aren't participating in strikes. Unions make everyone better off, except the bosses. If the dominant paradigm of contemporary capitalism is neoliberalism — a widespread assertion by the powerful that markets are always better, economic hierarchies provide benefits that "trickle down" to make everyone better off, and government policies should actively maintain such conditions — the strike is the ultimate repudiation of neoliberalism. The strike asserts that maintaining and reaffirming worker power should take precedence over maintaining "free markets”, and that egalitarianism — material equality — is more important than profit. It does all this through coordinated work stoppage, because control of work translates into political control. 

Granted, there are still barriers to the widespread success of strikes (most of which would go away if the PRO Act passes). These barriers include the simple fact that there is no right to strike guaranteed by law, that bosses can, in many instances, hire replacement workers (“strikebreakers”) without running afoul of labor law, and that the National Labor Relations Board's ban on "secondary activities" (boycotts and strikes against companies that support the companies against which workers are striking) renders strike action much weaker than it would otherwise be.

But even with these limitations, the ability of labor to flex its muscles in the American political playing field is impressive — particularly as not long ago, economists were predicting massive permanent layoffs as a result of automation. For the foreseeable future, however, workers have leverage because of their scarcity and their militancy. Unions may even help usher in widespread climate change-inspired reforms concerning how entire industries and labor are structured.

It's an open question and somewhat controversial, however, whether unions and strike actions can fundamentally transform the economy. The answer depends on who we ask.

The stakes could not be higher. The climate crisis is an existential one, portending widespread death, grueling refugee crises, and potentially irreversible damage to the biosphere. And Marxists believe that the working class, the most important class in history, is the agent which will address it. "[I]n the face of a worsening climate crisis," the Trotskyist faction of the Fourth International recently posted, "we know it is necessary to develop a program based on class independence with a strategy for ending the root cause of the ecological and social catastrophes we face: the capitalist system itself . . . Only the working class and its allies have the power to build a new system which operates in the interest of all of humanity." 

But if fixing the climate requires a wholesale restructuring of society along anti-capitalist, cooperative, and explicitly sustainable lines, it's still somewhat of an open question whether labor unions as presently structured have an integral role to play. The reason for such ambiguity lies in the essentially reformist nature of unions. In fact, that’s why critique of trade unions and labor unions in general can be identified in the earliest iterations of Marxism. 

Take, for example, arguments by anarchists like Partisan Review editor Dwight McDonald, who a century ago argued that in England, "the great dock strikes of 1889 led by socialists like Tim Mann and John Burns" ultimately evolved into the milquetoast British Labor Party. And in Germany, "the mighty Social-Democratic trade union movement, on which Marx and Engels placed their main hope for socialist leadership" — like the CIO in the United States — went from "rebellious youth to bureaucratic senility." Unions, the argument goes, exploit anticapitalist sentiment to gain power, then collude with the ruling class to control workers: "in each case the early struggle to establish unions had an anti-capitalist character which more and more disappeared as time went on," observes McDonald.

Perhaps this is another way of expressing Ahmed White's thesis in his article "Its Own Dubious Battle: The Impossible Defense of an Effective Right to Strike," positing that labor actions are only truly revolutionary if they occur as part of a revolution — that is, at the very least, if labor refuses to stay in the narrow NLRB lines and instead engages in illegal, wildcat, and forbidden actions. White's main argument is that "an effective right to strike is not only an impossible distraction but a dangerous fantasy that prevents labor’s champions from confronting the broader, sobering truths that this country’s legal and political system are, at root, anathema to a truly viable system of labor rights and that labor’s salvation must be sought elsewhere." 

But I think this is ultimately a kind of question-begging argument. All influential movements in capitalist society are in some way institutionally embedded, and such groups also, quite naturally and consistently, provide the rope of their own criticism and (sometimes radical) transformation. While most socialist and communist organizations in the U.S. support unions, few do so uncritically, and some groups have gone to great lengths to democratize unions, play decisive roles in strikes, and play strong roles in union locals while explaining their structural and ideological limits. Others have done nothing but criticize labor hierarchy and invite workers to form new labor organizations, explicitly anti-capitalist and indifferent to NLRB politics. Those "outsider" theorists also have a role to play in the mosaic of the radicalization of labor.

In order to empower unions as political forces, unions need to communicate with their own set of "constituents," and engage in campaign outreach based on an understanding of a kind of "voter base" in the politically conscious public. There are effective tools — like the email appending services offered by my client, Accurate Append — which can make this outreach easier. Ultimately, if more workplaces are unionized and more community members belong to unions, these ideological arguments will take on new form and life, and socialists, anarchists, and communists can work their differences out in common praxis against capitalism, rather than primarily against each other.


The History of Antifa

Guest post

Contrary to the narrative pushed by conservatives like Donald Trump, Antifa is not an organization. Indeed, to describe Antifa as an “organization” would directly contradict its inherently decentralized character. To “be Antifa” (anti-fascist) is to recognize the existential threat posed by fascism to vulnerable communities. This means committing to stopping the encroachment of fascism by any means necessary. Importantly, this is not a progressive definition of Antifa and anti-fascism— it is the only definition. 

Anti-fascism is as old as fascism itself. In 1920s Italy, left-wing resistance group Arditi del Popolo took to the streets to fight Benito Mussolini and his Italian Fascist Party. The group united leftists of all banners, from revolutionary communists to anarchists, for the common cause of hitting fascists where it hurts. During Adolf Hitler’s far-right Nazi regime, left-wing resistance groups such as Antifaschistische Aktion took to the streets in an effort to prevent further atrocities from taking place. After World War II, left-wingers in Germany regrouped, with new anti-fascist movements such as the Außerparlamentarische Opposition forming.

Antifa: As American As Apple Pie

In the United States, Antifa can be considered merely one in a long line of decentralized movements dedicated to the elimination of fascism. In the late 1980s, Anti-Racist Action (ARA) was founded in Minneapolis from a radical punk group known as the Minneapolis Baldies. The group spread across the Midwestern cities of Chicago and Columbus and later found its way throughout the country. Anti-Racist Action would establish a meaningful presence in the West Coast cities of Los Angeles and Portland, and even “crossed the border” into the Canadian metropolis of Toronto.

The rise of Antifa as a radical political force can also be partially traced to the creation of Redneck Revolt, formerly the “John Brown Gun Club” in honor of the famed abolitionist. The group was founded by white southerners committed to the cause of anti-racism and anti-fascism. The core principles of Redneck Revolt provide a strong summary of what guides anti-fascists in the United States:

  • “We stand against white supremacy
  • We believe in true liberty for all people
  • We stand for organized defense of our communities
  • We are working class and poor people
  • We are an aboveground militant formation
  • We stand against the nation-state and its forces which protect the bosses and the rich (police and military)
  • We stand against capitalism
  • We stand against the wars of the rich
  • We stand against patriarchy
  • We believe in the right of militant resistance
  • We believe in the need for revolution”

Following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, anti-fascists wasted no time taking to the streets to resist his right-wing extremist agenda. From the beginning, Antifa activists were on the frontlines resisting Trump’s agenda, which included building alliances with religious groups in the interest of protecting migrants. Almost two hundred anti-fascist activists faced criminal charges after protesting Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. 

Praxis: Antifa in the Real World

Despite the media’s depiction of Antifa organizers as troublesome young people committed to violence at the expense of making a meaningful impact, this could not be further from the truth. Following the devastation brought on by Hurricane Harvey, Antifa activists took to organizing mutual aid efforts to help those displaced. Outside of the United States, the cause of defeating fascism in any form remains the goal of activists across the world. From India to Brazil, activists are putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others at risk from the rise of the far-right. The fact of the matter is that you can’t simply vote out fascism: defeating fascism means breaking it at its very core, and this means organizing on every front.


Eugene Debs: Political Communicator

It would be interesting to see how the public—even the left public—would respond to Eugene V. Debs if he were alive today. Debs was so morally sentimental and personally vulnerable in his rhetoric that it is difficult to predict how audiences would react, especially in a present during which vulnerability is often heavily tempered with irony, sarcasm and even nihilism in order to be digestible. In many ways, such irony and nihilism emerges from an explicit rejection of "liberalism," or soft center-leftism. Ronald Lee and James Andrews explain how Debs has been reappropriated by liberals (as distinct from socialists) as one of their own precisely because of liberal attachment to moral sentiment. By using "the historical narrative's definition of virtue," liberals crowd out radical change. Thus, Lee and Andrews argue that Debs' moralism better serves a contemporary agenda of "business-labor reconciliation" instead of the class war and unapologetically anti-capitalist ontology Debs actually possessed and espoused.  

Another critic points out that Americanrhetoric.com, ranks Debs' speech to the jury following his conviction under the Alien and Sedition Act for his Canton, Ohio anti-war speech "as the 34th most influential and memorable speeches of all time." It is widely acknowledged that "the speech in the courtroom failed at the legal level given the complicity of law and politics in reinforcing the power of the state.” Yet, something greater was at stake, and it is that very higher idealism which might succeed as political rhetoric right here and right now if someone emerged possessing Debs' ethos, which he himself had gained via creating "tropes of working class rhetoric that resonated with a wider audience." Indeed, losing in court was a huge rhetorical advantage to Debs' own movement at the time, and it is likely that the same events today would have been similarly appealing to audiences, given unprecedented and contemporary cynicism about the legitimacy of courts under neocolonial capitalism. Yet, an important difference to consider is that, "Debs never doubted that justice was on his side, despite the contrary conclusions of a closed political and legal system." In 2021, even committed leftists and progressives are hesitant to believe if not outright disbelieving that even a hypothetical court would provide true justice. What Debs might have treated as an aberration of capitalism is now seen by a significant section of today's society as an irredeemable feature of governance generally. 

More than one rhetorical scholar has highlighted that Debs understood messaging. One article even suggests Debs used what we might recognize as "modern" campaign tactics, and specifically in his 1912 presidential race where he utilized easy-to-communicate messaging, a non-condescending simplification of complex German political theory suitable for Americans. Debs was different from other radicals: "He was able to translate the Marxist idea of socialism into traditional American language; he used Lockean language as a tool to explain to common Americans socialist thought."  This included appeals to individualism and natural law. Capitalism, he argued, was a threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The results of Debs' messaging are clear. Third party candidates generally struggle to get more than a few thousand votes, even for president. Only three third party candidates have ever exceeded five percent of the vote. Debs was one of them, attaining six percent of the vote in a race against Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and Teddy Roosevelt—a crowded and notoriety-saturated field. Debs had nearly a million votes campaigning both as a free man and as an incarcerated one. He had a devoted following and even his enemies acknowledged his virtues and how tough it was to go up against him. Above all, Debs' deep faith in humanity, and his abiding loyalty to the marginalized and downtrodden, made him a living argument for socialism rather than simply another firebrand with a manifesto. Debs had ethos, forged through his kinship with the least powerful people including the incarcerated. 

I think understanding Debs rhetorically and politically requires analysing his statement to the court from a point earlier than that chosen by most. Debs statement begins with "kinship," or relatedness. "Your Honor," he says, "years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free” (emphasis added). In these opening lines, Debs is emphatically acknowledging that he is not any better than anyone else. And that, unlike some of the more flowery morality often identified in his rhetoric, remains an acceptable sign of virtuosity even today. 

Similarly, Debs' very important statement on race relations critiques whiteness in a way that intentionally and decisively lifts up the agency of Black voices. "The whole history of the Negro race in America is one to make the white race blush scarlet with shame," Debs writes, before continuing on to point out that the seizure of humans from Africa for the sake of chattel slavery had so dehumanized Black people as to render them free from any debt to the white race, even the old cannard of "gratitude" for those white people who fought for emancipation. Debs had been a railroad worker and so he used the phrase “'Jim Crow' car" to describe the post-emancipation treatment of Black people. In the end, "for the improvement [African Americans have] been able to make under such inhuman and degrading conditions he is certainly under no obligation to his former white slave-drivers—his present white persecutors." Ultimately, Black people do not owe white people anything in the context of race relations; instead, Debs said, we owe each other solidarity as workers.

Debs as a political communicator would, perhaps, do better today than some might initially expect. Yes, he was at times excessively sentimental in the language he chose to use, but he was also self-deprecating, critical of both his race and gender and clear in his admittance of his own moral weaknesses, all in an effort to lift up the working class in its entirety. In 2021, marginalized communities and poor people—those living most precariously—might appreciate Debs' combination of utopian hope, commitment to struggle and solidarity and clear criticism of whiteness and cis-gender patriarchy. 

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The Pandemic and the Transition to New Political Communication

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended a lot of assumptions. We used to think that things like work location, physical proximity and functional spatiality were all fixed concepts. Remote work was considered a novelty and people were expected to gather together in the same space for organizational functions. Yes, some of that was already changing, with forward-minded activists and entrepreneurs developing collaborative platforms where work and communication could take place from anywhere with a signal. But mainstream society still saw this as a novelty.

The pandemic altered this by forcing us to consciously define, "essential" work, and the ruling class hasn't done a very good job with its version of these redefinitions. From insisting that education (primary, secondary, and college/university) could not be moved into safer physical space to forcing dangerous situation onto retail and restaurant workers, they proved they do not take care of the workers they need and employ and instead use their very essentiality to force them into precarious workplaces.

This insistence on proximity, as we'll call it, is also reflected in far-right populist political gatherings, from maskless Trump rallies (which will presumably re-start soon) to mob attacks on governmental spaces. It's this trajectory — this growing insistence by those in financial power, or those seeking illegitimate political power, that we "show up," that our bodies be there — that I want to examine by taking a closer look at the conversation about covid-19 and governance.

I'll start with Professor Andrew S. Roe-Crines's February 23 essay in The Conversation.  Roe-Crines uses the impact of the pandemic on British Parliamentary PMQs to express concern about the future of democracy, which he sees as reliant on (in my own words) a physical immediacy and spontaneity. He writes:

The impact of COVID on these rhetorical arena affects the ability of one of our key democratic norms to function – communication. Without communication (or rhetoric), there is no meaningful liberal democratic society or scrutiny of our political leaders. This is not to suggest our liberal democracy has ceased to function (indeed, its move into the virtual realm is a testament to its strength). However, the manner in which PMQs is currently functioning impedes not just scrutiny but also the ability of party leaders to lead their parliamentary parties.

I've included the whole paragraph because I want to dwell on the weirdness of it. The author recognizes that the move into virtual processes and gatherings is a testament to democracy's strength, but believes, and goes on to articulate, that some essential part of political rhetoric is lost when crowds do not gather. There's never really a global definition of what rhetoric is, but there's an assumption about not being able to exercise the same quality of leadership absent physical immediacy.

Roe-Crines continues by saying that without an immediate crowd, leadership can't be discerned: "The virtual conference cuts out a key measure of how much support a leader really has – the sound of the audience. Without that feedback, party leaders are left speaking into a camera in the hope that the audience accepts their arguments without really knowing if it does." Of course the "audience" that is residents of the UK is very different from the "audience" one would be speaking to in PMQ. Plus, the whole argument is quite creepy, particularly when seen through a lens of ability, political and economic geography, and the actual danger of right-wing populism having less to do with it being populism and more to do with who is funding it.

I'm left to wonder why we wouldn't consider new Q and A formats that would try to find the spontaneity and authenticity the author wants without requiring people to inhabit particular geophysical public space. "Gone are loud displays of support, or the need for the Speaker to regularly demand 'order!' . . . little to no interaction with the physical or virtual audiences of MPs." Frankly, all of this seems like a logistical problem.

Which brings me to Aristotle. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the ability to see and deploy the available means of persuasion in a given situation to win over your audience. This materialist and historicist definition is extremely pragmatic. Rhetoric so-defined isn't damaged, undermined, or limited by the transition from in-person to virtual collective action. It just changes. It just needs a new set of methods.

Furthermore, if the initial argument is that lack of physical proximity undermines connection, Aline Burni's observations about the role of empathy in leadership during COVID, and its connection to superior forms of political leadership (if your measuring stick is pandemic survival and functionality) found in states with female leaders, subsumes any argument about the breakdown of democracy due to space and distance regulation. The importance in political communication, particularly during crisis, lies in ability to connect rather than mobilize a proximate crowd. In fact, that connection is exactly what my client Accurate Append has offered during the pandemic: it has provided quality email append services to enable organizations and companies in touch to support those who support them.

Political scientist Aline Burni studies international and transnational cooperation at the German Development Institute. Burni writes: "During the COVID-19 pandemic, female leaders have been portrayed by the media as more competent and efficient in dealing with the outbreak. A study by the University of Reading has provided evidence that countries led by women entered lockdown significantly earlier. Consequently, these countries suffered less in terms of COVID-19 infections and deaths, at least in the first wave." Now, we don't need to dwell too much on female leader X vs female leader Y — that kind of overly-analytic approach is not helpful. Burni is intellectually honest sticking to the first wave in this very recent article, and we know that there are always exceptions to any general conclusion, and we're seeking general observations about leadership attributes.

Importantly, ". . . the study emphasises [that] the proactive attitude of females compared to male leaders (earlier lockdowns) that helped to avoid deaths” is a universalizable trait. There is also a plurality of often creative "crisis communication approaches" which Burni frames as opportunities for leaders to connect with constituents. The clincher: "In general, there is not one successful model of crisis communication. However, it appears that communication has been more effective when based on a balance between science, rationality and emotions simultaneously, especially when the leader expresses empathy."

We know that people find ways to express empathy on conferencing platforms and constituent communication system, and that deep canvassing methods as well as streams of transparent and useful information (constantly accessible "news" from every level of government, delivered via tweets, for example) can even shape quantitative data gathering around communicated human needs. And some technologies can be empathetic.

Empathy seems far more important than physical proximity in exercising good leadership. The privileging of physical proximity is old world, assumes a level of material privilege, and is patriarchal in that it depends on control of the powerful over the proximity of others.

Empathy, the recognition that others have moral worth and consideration on par with one's own, must include a literal, material "taking one where one is." That makes egalitarian, equally-distributed communication technology essential for collective action and decision making, as well as just checking in on the well-being of constituents.

 


Is a Mars Mission Feasible?

In an interview late in his life, Carl Sagan speculated on the number of reasons humans would want to colonize Mars. "I don't know why you're on Mars," he said. "Maybe you're there because we recognize we have to carefully move small asteroids around to avert the possibility of one impacting the Earth . . . maybe we're on Mars because we recognize that if there are human communities on many different worlds, the chances of us being rendered extinct by some catastrophe on one world is much less. Or maybe we're on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there, that the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Or maybe we're on Mars because we have to be, because there's a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process."

In theory, everybody wants to go to Mars, at least in the sense that it remains the aspirational goal of nearly everyone interested in space travel to send humans to Mars and possibly establish a colony. Even Apollo astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins want us to do it. At one point, the president apparently offered NASA an unlimited budget with the mandate that they stop everything else they're doing and focus entirely on Mars. The consensus (and an obvious conclusion) is that we won't get to Mars during this presidency, but it's not clear the president knows that. Whether he knows it or not, his administration is compromising by encouraging stepped-up "lunar missions seen as vital steps toward sending Americans to Mars by 2033." Congress apparently wishes the administration was moving even  faster to Mars, and the U.S. House of Representatives has continued to pressure the administration to prioritize Mars over more Moon landings.

Numerous private sector forces also give us reason to be optimistic. Those companies will need massive government funding, though. They often operate at fairly marginal profit lines, particularly when they're developing cutting edge technology with high development and production costs. Making the jump from Earth-based demonstrations to the feasibility of replication on other planets is a huge leap of faith that private investors are unlikely to want to take on their own. 

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last year that he did not "rule out a first human mission to Mars as soon as 2033." He pointed out that NASA is working on such a plan based on already-existing (or near development) technologies used to get to the Moon, and it's that assumption that the technology can be transposed that is responsible for the otherwise audacious speculation that we could actually get to Mars in 13 years. Less optimistic analysis says such a mission could not be conducted before 2037, but for those of us watching from home, a four-year difference in projections seems like splitting hairs. More rovers are planned in order to collect soil samples from Mars to aid in planning human settlements there. 

But the naysayers — and there are many — say that, at present, too many feasibility issues exist. These include cost (which is more of a political question) and technological capacity. The cost has to be looked at as a function not only of the distance to Mars (and thus the need to pack tremendous amounts of supplies for both the journey and the stay), but also of the cost of each individual piece of the project.  "A trip to Mars would take six to eight months each way, plus the time it would take astronauts to explore the planet when they get there," according to experts. Other consultants point to the high cost of transporting things from Earth to Mars, in the magnitude of $1.5 million per pound of instruments, robots, food, etc. 

Then there's the dangers found in both the journey to and the "settlement" of the planet. As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo writes, "a Martian colony would be miserable, with people forced to live in artificially lit underground bases, or in thickly protected surface stations with severely minimized access to the outdoors" — a recipe for sickness, depression and other dysfunction. Mars has no magnetic field, thin air, and therefore major vulnerability to radiation

On the question of radiation, NASA appears to want answers sooner rather than later. The agency is sending radiation sensors on its upcoming lunar launch tests to track exposure levels, which can help scientists calculate the amount of radiation in the much longer journey to Mars. We already know that there would be a lot of radiation exposure on the trip a lot there and back, and that any travelers would be sitting ducks — fried ducks, even — on the planet. Being there would be dangerous unless one were so well-shielded that their body wouldn't be in contact with anything Martian or human. At that point, why not only explore it virtually? 

Orbital missions may have to suffice — assuming the radiation of the journey can be mitigated. Perhaps the orbital station could serve as an interim mission allowing very short trips to the surface, probes to both Martian moons, and more. 

Several years ago, Bethany L Ehlmann, Professor of Planetary Science at the California Institute of Technology, wrote a feasibility study and CBA on a Mars mission. Ehlmann concluded that the mission would be economically feasible, that technology could be developed to overcome the radiation risks to travellers, and that ultimately such a decision is "political" rather than scientific. That may very well be; as with so much of what we take to be "natural," feasibility is in the eye of the beholder and is a question of what we are willing to prioritize in terms of economics and human resources. But given the political and economic playing field as it currently exists, we could not presently get to Mars (at least get to the surface long enough to establish a semi-decent base camp) without cutting some dangerous corners. 

Until then, whenever "then" is — and meaning whenever we make the political decision that the comprehensive mission is feasible — we will likely keep stepping tantalizingly closer. We already know it isn't impossible. In many people's minds, that means it's inevitable. 

 

This post is sponsored by our client, Accurate Append, who offers affordable and high quality email, phone and data appending services.


Can Tech Help Get Out the Vote in a Chaotic Election?

 

Success in getting out the vote — motivating potential voters to register and then participate in mail-in or in-person voting — acts as the canary in the coal mine for American democracy. Voting is something that the least powerful and most marginalized groups in U.S. society don't do nearly as often as their wealthy and more privileged counterparts. Dambisa Moyo, who writes about democracy, pointed out in a New York Times piece last year that "nearly half the people who don’t vote [in the United States] have family incomes below $30,000, and just 19 percent of likely voters come from low-income families. So it’s hardly surprising that the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index downgraded the United States from a 'full democracy' to a 'flawed democracy' in 2017, based on diminished voter engagement and confidence in the democratic process."

So with a consensus that there's a lot at stake in the 2020 elections, you'd think voter turnout would be at an all-time high. But that thinking doesn't take Covid-19 or true voter suppression efforts into account. Some people are (justifiably) afraid to go out, while others are nefariously discouraged from voting. And this time around — in 2020 — fighting these trends won't be easy. Not only are we experiencing a never-ending pandemic, it's also impossible even under the best circumstances to keep track of all the illegitimate mechanisms some states are using to keep people from voting. 

In normal circumstances, in-person interactions are the key to almost all effective political engagement, especially where motivating people from scratch is concerned; but, as has been established, these are not normal times. We might be able to maintain relationships remotely, but starting those relationships is much more difficult as long as constituents, potential voters, donors and/or activists must remain at technological arm's length. Though some candidate and voter drives are taking place in-person, these events carry a COVID-19 stigma and, even in safe conditions, most people will not show up to things they don't have to show up to. With the election only a handful of days away, technology is all we really have. 

Getting out the vote requires two elements: people need access, and they need enthusiasm. One can explain access remotely but not provide it. And one can transmit enthusiasm, but one better be darn good at it. Tech companies, social media platforms, and app makers are all doing their best. Some companies are providing tools that bolster existing GOTV efforts by connecting campaigns and organizations with potential voters. Accurate Append, for example, provides data append, phone append and email append services that help facilitate the important work of getting out the vote. 

Some tech companies are doing GOTV work themselves. Several platform and content creators in the greater Los Angeles area "are leveraging their influence to encourage voting by Gen Z and millennial audiences as registration deadlines approach." These companies and innovators are creating voting guides and tools that they hope will "motivate first-time voters to cast a ballot." Most GOTV tech apps already begin with the premise that in-person interactions are important, and so a handful of them seem to be making an effort to replicate those interactions, either through peer-to-peer GOTV reminders and canvassing, or through widespread campaigning on the availability of the tech. On that note, Snapchat had registered a million voters by October 1 of this year, and over 60% of those users were between the ages of 18 and 24. 

Why is the 18 to 24 cohort important? Age and adaptability are key factors in the tech transition. Since the last presidential election in 2016, over 15 million people have turned 18, and are thus eligible to vote for the first time. Even a fraction of that number can swing state and local races. In fact — as we saw in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — a few tens of thousands of people voting or not voting can even swing the electoral college for a presidential contender. 

Events (which can be done in a fun way online, requiring some planning) are still important in building GOTV enthusiasm. Recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, student groups hosted a GOTV Fest focused on motivating communities of color to vote. 1000 people attended online, thanks to the efforts of MITVote, the Asian American Initiative, Latino Cultural Center, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Chinese Students Club, the South Asian Association of Students and the Black Students’ Union. It was done through Zoom. 

The sweet spot would be finding a way to utilize the spirit of deep canvassing in the service of mobilizing first-time voters. It's already been used (and tested by research) in the context of deliberation designed to increase tolerance and decrease bigotry. That research tried to identify “the secret ingredient that makes deep canvassing work" and examined the role of actual deep communication with people in Tennessee, Central California, and Southern California, all prior to the 2018 elections. These are places where cultural worlds collide, including places with strong nativist and conservative tendencies running smack into the reality of ICE raids and immigrant workers. 

Of course, perhaps the reason tech companies aren't doing more to get out the vote is that those companies themselves aren't particularly good at encouraging their own workers to vote. This seems to be the case with Amazon, a company purporting to have progressive values. Currently, thousands of tech employees at Amazon recently "signed a petition calling for the e-commerce giant to provide paid time off to all of its employees to vote." That's 1.3 million workers (if you include both Amazon and Amazon-owned Whole Foods) total who, if eligible, would benefit from this policy and the resulting accessibility of voting. That's not a small number. 

The petition calls for eight hours of paid leave, and if that seems like too much, consider that some people are waiting in line for longer than that just to be able to vote early. Additionally, the eight hours can be spread out — time to register, time to volunteer, and time to vote. That is a sweet package, and Amazon should grant it. 

Technology’s attempt to keep up with democracy's demands has always been tough, but it's been made tougher because people are rightly afraid of too much social interaction and because the government currently displays no support for voting rights. Thankfully, people step up when institutions fail; and the tech sector — increasingly decentralized and facilitative of grassroots activism — has stepped up impressively.


Ideographs in the Economy of Political Communication

If you were to open up any campaigning handbook to the messaging section, you’d inevitably find exhortations, commands, and reminders to keep your messages short: short slogans, non-complex sentences, memorable short phrases. It’s reminiscent of being lectured on saving money by older folks when I was younger; there’s a similar appeal to the scarcity of resources. 

Anybody who works on campaigns understands that discourse is an economy. Simply put, we always have little time and limited space to say as much as we can, and hope that the right things get remembered. Although AI can create algorithms and we can tip the scales through microtargeting and other data-driven surgical strikes — something that data append vendors like Accurate Append can help support — no candidate can or will try to escape the burden of messaging. It’s just too important. 

Rhetorical scholars study this economy of discourse, the way meaning can be denotatively packed into words and other symbols and signs. For Aristotle, rhetoric was a skill, and the ability to see the available means of persuasion in any given situation. He believed that audiences shared common iconic thoughts and history with speakers, so speakers should naturally use familiar words and phrases to take advantage of those topoi, those common places. 

One of the more interesting analytical tools for studying the way that a few words can speak many more words — or how symbols and words can combine — is the "ideograph," the most comprehensive treatment of which comes from the work of comm-rhetorical scholar Michael Calvin McGee. 

The ideograph is subtly different from the "ideogram" although the two are sometimes used interchangeably. An ideogram is a graphic symbol representing a concept independent of a particular language. The parameters of that definition are a bit fuzzy, but what scholars typically mean are things like Egyptian hieroglyphics, or symbols put in multilingual public spaces like the fifty DOT pictograms conveying things like train stations, hotels, or toilets. Ideograms are symbols that mean words.

In contrast, ideographs — as Michael Calvin McGee explains in his definitive article on the ideograph in 1980 — make symbols out of words. Ideographs are phrases or sentences that create or reinforce political and, ultimately, ideological positions. That these are ideological and not just political is important. Politics are minutiae: policies, one candidate or another, personality disputes. Ideology is systemic, moral, committed. An ideograph saying simply that public transit would save energy would not be very effective. On the other hand, an ideograph that said "public transportation: good for everyone, good for the planet" pushes the idea into the realm of the ideological. It conceptualizes public transportation in terms of the common good, the need for universal infrastructure, a commitment to environmental sustainability.

There's an assumption in McGee's work — and in much study of political rhetoric — that ideology is always going to be characterized by sloganeering of one kind or another. There's always an assumption that things must be simplified, though not because people are unintelligent and cannot understand ideas in all their complexity. The goal is not to be like Snowball, the revolutionary pig in Orwell's Animal Farm, who deliberately simplifies everything for the animals who aren't as smart. Rather, the goal is, in recognizing the ‘economy’ of discourse, to economize our words: our time and resources are scarce, other people's time and resources are scarce, and the demands of the world and the diversity of culture and thought (particularly in a huge country like the United States) force the choices of a finite world. 

Ideographs work because people already (mostly) understand and agree with them when they see them. In containing their unique ideological commitment, McGee argues, ideographs rest on the assumption that everyone in a particular "community" or cluster of belief will understand their complexity and nuance. Consider a well-known joke as an analogy: the purpose isn’t the punchline, it’s getting people into the joke itself. 

In this respect, ideographs often use another rhetorical device called enthymeme. In its classical sense (again developed and explained by Aristotle), the enthymeme is a type of syllogism where one of the premises is hidden or suppressed. The word has later come to mean any kind of argument, formal or informal, where the speaker/writer assumes that the audience already knows part of the information necessary to walk from the introduction to the conclusion. When a Republican operative said in 2007 that they knew the American people weren't going to elect "Barack Hussein Obama" as president and over-enunciated "Hussein," that was an enthymeme. There, the suppressed premise was that the name "Hussein" denoted terrorism, an Iraq despot, and/or Islam (thereby stoking Islamophobia). Enthymemes are natural allies to ideographs, because they reduce the amount of words needed to make a point and don't have to be argumentatively or logically accountable for every word used. 

Trump’s slogan, "Make America Great Again," is a strong ideograph. It's a short and proactive phrase using ordinary language to indicate a virtual Las Vegas buffet of ideological commitment. Its conservatism is found in the word "again," suggesting a return to the past. Its radicalism and populism is found in the word "make," indicating the need for proactive restoration of a golden age. The enthymeme — the argument with the hidden premise — is "America," and implicitly indicates that there are certain forces that have rendered America no-longer great. These forces might include President Obama, hatred of whom is an obsession for Trump. Similarly, they might include the "deep state" that the administration constantly invokes to convey an image of powerful corrupt insiders. 

McGee calls the ideograph "a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal." That ambiguity, along with its ability to do a lot with a little, gives it utility as a tool of campaigning and mobilization. It creates a common mythos, strengthened by each person’s commitment to an unstated moral imperative. 


Propaganda vs Disinformation: What's the Difference?

The idea that powerful people lie to us to achieve political objectives seems like the bleakest of political truths. There is a silver lining, though: it's the idea that they think they have to lie to us, that they must lie to us because they would be unable to achieve those objectives without lying. If that's true, then it's also possible to understand their lies, why they lie, and why the lies work. Once we do that, the thinking goes, we can fight back against dishonesty..

Casting political lies as a problem and methodological understanding as the solution is pretty modernist, grounded in Enlightenment thinking: lies are a problem, diagnosis and understanding are the beginnings of solutions. I think that an understanding of what we mean by "disinformation" complicates this problem-solution scheme, but not fatally. What we need to do is understand disinformation not so much as "political and economic leaders lie" as "there is always already disinformation."

By "always already" I don't mean, and I hope it doesn't sound like I mean, that every political statement from the elites is a lie, or even that every political entity is involved in disinformation. It's true that there is "spin" in every political statement, but both solidarity (how committed the leader is to her constituents) and motive are important, and just because something is "rhetorical" or even "propaganda" doesn't mean it's disinformation. Some definition of terms:

Propaganda refers to "information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people's opinions . . ." I like this definition because although it admits to the one-sided nature of propaganda, it stops short of calling propaganda dishonest per se. George Orwell is famous for declaring all propaganda to be lies, but he wasn't technically correct. Propaganda is the production and promulgation of ideological or political rhetoric. We might distinguish propaganda from product marketing and labeled advertising, while including search engine optimization, like the work we do for cell phone and demographic append lead vendor Accurate Append and recommended for the Medicare-for-All movement. Rhetoric is just what we call methodology of persuasion, so it doesn't intrinsically imply dishonesty, and certainly not intentional dishonesty. But hold that thought, because propaganda can be part of disinformation.

Disinformation as a term of art in diplomacy and espionage means “false information, as about a country’s military strength or plans, disseminated by a government or intelligence agency in a hostile act of tactical political subversion.” This is pretty narrow. It's a tacticalthough it can be a tactic used against the general public, rather than diplomats, military leaders, or public officials. But the analysis broadens a little: disinformation can also mean “deliberately misleading or [deliberately] biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.” Although this circling back to propaganda makes things imprecise, I think the most accurate way to describe that relationship is that disinformation utilizes propaganda; the two are not the same. Not all manipulation is intentionally disinformation. According to Democracy Reporting International, there were instances of "manipulation of public information in 12 countries in 2019 ahead of or during elections." But not all of that is "disinformation" in the strictest sense of the term.

Disinformation is also often distinguished from misinformation, which is "false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead." Disinfo can utilize both misinfo and propaganda. The ubiquity of disinformation is that it lies, always dwelling in amoral political institutions, somewhere between propaganda and deliberate, bad-faith lies, becoming concretely the latter, the big lies, when the elites (of whichever faction) think it's time to deploy such lies. It's always there, it's always ready. But it takes resources, and so it happens with great intention.

Purveyors of disinformation often hide it in other sites or platforms. "Honest" political propaganda and polemic, on the other hand, is found on openly political platforms, where people know they're going to be subject to a variety of (often passionate and combative) political opinions. Call it propaganda with a warning label versus disinformation placed to bombard the consumer without representing itself as a side in a debate or part of a larger conversation.

The Democracy Reporting International research found such strategies in Tunisia and Sri Lanka: "Facebook pages focusing on entertainment with murky affiliation and ownership, which consistently posted and sponsored political messages" and "celebrity-focused pages . . .  sharing misleading political content in the run-up to the 2019 presidential elections."

Propaganda has always been intrinsically linked to news productionand again, not an "exception" to or aberration of news. Alexander the Great had newsmakers accompany him on his epic campaign eastward, and these "embedded reporters" would send messengers home with reports of the conqueror's exploits and victories and even the metaphysical claim that he was son of Zeus. We call that propaganda, even though it probably contained a lot of tall tales. But what Athenian general Themistocles did to the Persian king Xerxes in 480 BC, convincing him to wage a naval battle based on information that the Greeks weren't ready to fight, was disinformation in the term-of-art sense. Propaganda spins. Disinformation creates "from whole cloth," or out of little or nothing.

We can learn something about the distinct power of disinformation by studying the role of the Soviet State Security Committee in the 1980s, and Russia and Chinese agencies currently, concerning pandemic and epidemic disinformation. The Soviet State Security Committee (AKA the KGB), since-publicized internal documents reveal, launched a campaign to convince the world that the AIDS virus was "the result of secret experiments by the USA’s secret services and the Pentagon with new types of biological weapons that have spun out of control." The plot utilized "forged documents and inaccurate testimony from purported experts to suggest that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, had originated not from infected animals in Africa but from biological warfare research carried out by U.S. military scientists at Fort Detrick in Maryland." This is remarkably specific disinformationcarefully planned and engineered. The project was immensely successful, because its goals were to at least muddy the informational waters and at most turn people completely against the U.S. on false pretenses. Similarly, arguments that COVID-19 "was invented in a lab or brought to China by U.S. soldiers," along with questioning whether various safety protocols actually work, or claiming it doesn't affect tobacco smokers, rely on deliberately constructed false arguments about facts rather than moral sentiments or general impressions more characteristic to ideological propaganda.

Casting doubt, or getting people to disengage, is a top-level disinformation program goal. The objective need not be a vote for your candidate or yes vote in a referendum. It might be influencing people not to vote at all, which is one less vote for the opponent. According to Rafael Goldzweig, Cambridge Analytica successfully influenced the 2016 UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. elections, using misinformation designed to either influence the vote or get people to not vote.

Understanding the difference between propaganda and disinformation is important as we enter the final months of the 2020 election cycle because many people will conflate the two, and thus be unable to understand the difference between the candidates who are simply good at spin and those actively engaged in the production and distribution of factually wrong, deliberately promulgated information. Evan Halper's recent L.A. Times piece points out that Democrats have become "adept at tracking the origin and spread of the disinformation," but "have yet to find an effective strategy for depriving it of oxygen," especially since so many social media platforms appear to be willing to let some threads of disinformation run their course rather than stopping them at the point of dissemination. Perhaps the distinction between spin and deliberately manufactured untruths can help people understand that, even though disinformation is always around, not all candidates or public officials openly embrace it.


The AI Debate and Both Sides' Worst-Case Scenarios (and How to Evaluate Them)

What's the best-case scenario for the application of artificial intelligence? What's the worst-case scenario for AI going wrong? There are, of course, speculative answers to these questions, and it's interesting to list them. But there is also a deeper conversation to be had about the nature of risk and the assumptions (and obscure spots) involved in scenario building. We're bringing you this post with support from data append and consumer contact vendor Accurate Append.

Begin with the best- and worst-case scenarios:

Among the promising developments of artificial intelligence: The slowing of disease spread. The elimination or at least radical reduction car crashes. The ability to address a host of environmental crises, including climate change. And the ability to cure cancer and heart disease. On the cardiovascular front specifically, AI allows for "deep learning" so that programs can identify novel genotypes and phenotypes across a wide range of cardiovascular diseases,

Okay, so those are some promising applications. Why be worried? Well, there are two types of "AI bad" scenarios: the apocalyptic "it could be over in minutes" scenarios, and the slow agonizing societal turmoil scenarios. I'll explain the apocalyptic scenarios first. There is the possibility that the more autonomous the systems, the greater the risk of them being deployed either purposely or by accident against innocent life. The psychological distancing of a machine, even a smart one, decreases empathy and increases acceptability of attacks. There is also the possibility that lethal AI warfighting systems could be captured, compromised, or subject to malfunction. Alexy Turchin, researcher with Science for Life Extension Foundation, and David Denkenberger, researcher with Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, developed a system of cataloguing these "global catastrophic risks" and published it in the journal AI & Society in 2018. In the section on viruses, they write: "A narrow AI virus may be intentionally created as a weapon capable of producing extreme damage to enemy infrastructure. However, later it could be used against the full globe, perhaps by accident. A 'multi-pandemic,' in which many AI viruses appear almost simultaneously, is also a possibility, and one that has been discussed in an article about biological multi-pandemics." The further advanced the entire network of AI tech, so in other words "the further into the future such an attack occurs," the worse it will be, including risking human extinction. To put some icing on that cake, the authors point out that multiple viruses, a kind of "AI pandemic" could occur, "affecting billions of sophisticated robots with a large degree of autonomy" and pretty much sealing our fate.

Turchin and Denkenberger even delve into the scenarios wherein such a virus could get past firewalls. Instead of the clumsy and obvious phishing emails we get now, imagine getting an email from someone you nominally know or have exchanged emails before; someone you trust. But it isn't really them—it's a really, really good simulation, the kind created by machines that learn. The speed of that learning is several million times faster than our own. An AI virus could simulate so many aspects of human communication that people would either have to completely stop trusting one another, or eventually someone is going to let the bugs in.

Before we go onto the higher probability and lower magnitude negative impacts of AI, though, I think we should say a few things about risk. First, actual risk is much harder to predict than it seems. We can catalogue worst-case scenarios, but this says nothing about their probability, and probability may be infinitely regressive, frankly, because, as the principle of "Laplace's Demon" holds, we'd have to step outside of the universe to accurately assess probabilities.

But what if Laplace's Demon not only applies to what technology can and cannot predict, but to the development of technology itself? This may mean that the elimination of sole risks inadvertently gives rise to others. But just as flipping heads three times in a row doesn't bear on whether the next coin flip will yield heads or tails, so the elimination of certain risks doesn't make it any more or less likely, in the scheme of things, to create new risks. They just happen.

The problem with the more apocalyptic worst-case scenarios is not that there is no possible world where they could happen, but that in a world where they could happen, any number of other apocalyptic scenarios could also happen. This is because the worst-case scenarios assume a complete lack of regulations, fail-safe measures, or other checks and balances. And while we have reason to fear that the industry will not adequately police itself or allow policing from other entities, it's a bit of a slippery slope from there to imagining no checks whatsoever.

One piece on AI policy from George Mason University discusses the proposal of Gary E. Marchant and Wendell Wallach to form "governance coordinating committees (GCCs) to work together with all the interested stakeholders to monitor technological development and to develop solutions to perceived problems." This is perhaps a nuanced version of industry self-regulation, but it really proposes to work both within existing institutions and for entities to monitor one another, a sort of commons-based approach where producers keep each other honest. "If done properly," the paper concludes, "GCCs, or something like them, could provide appropriate counsel and recommendations without the often-onerous costs of traditional regulatory structures." Combined with public education about the benefits and risks of AI, perhaps cultural practices will grow to preempt concern about worst-case scenarios. But regulators can always step in where needed.

Besides, once the possibility and knowledge sets exist for a particular level of technology, it's virtually impossible to ban itor even to enforce a ban on a particular direction or application for its research. This is why Spyros Makridakis, Rector of Neapolis University, writes in a 2017 paper on AI development that "progress cannot be halted which means that the only rational alternative is to identify the risks involved and devise effective actions to avoid their negative consequences."

As we said earlier, though, there's a more realistic apocalypse we need to face with AI: the loss of massive amounts of jobs (assuming we live in a world approaching full employment ever again post-pandemic and actually have jobs to lose). AI shifts cause massive structural patterns of transitional unemployment, markets will not correct this in a timely manner, and the number of suffering people could be overwhelming

But this ultimately seems like a political question rather than an economic one: Even without the economy transitioning into the accurate definition of socialism, which is democratic control of the means of production, a shift to a universal basic income would preserve some of the basic economic structures and assumptions of capitalism, allow a greater flexibility about defining employment in the first place, and facilitate either transitions into new work or settlement into less work. There's nothing wrong with both dreaming about risks and preparing for inevitable challenges. If AI is a genie we can't put back, we may as well negotiate with it.


'Everything We Do is About Solid Execution and Measurable Results'

Phil Mandelbaum recently interviewed me about leftists organizing and technology activism for herald.news. I got to talk a bit about what makes my digital agency tick.

We specialize in technology projects for left campaigns and causes. Our original slogan was People, Insight, Technology because we like to put together smart teams that solve organizing challenges with infrastructure that scales effort.

I also talked with Phil about my background in data tech, consulting for city, state, and federal campaigns, and working with 175 volunteers to collect more than 14,000 signatures from 46 out of California’s 58 counties to get our Gayle McLaughlin on the ballot in 2018. I talked about my roles with organizing tech Outreach Circle and ActionSprout, Facebook advertising, and data append vendor Accurate Append.

In sum:

Everything we do at The Adriel Hampton Group is about solid execution and measurable results. Whether I’m building a volunteer team or managing a design project, I’m really looking at maximum impact for effort. I have no doubt that running agency projects has helped prepare me to go hard on actions.

Hope you'll give it a read!