According to Yuval Harare the trait that makes human beings both unique and dominant over other species is our ability to create and believe in fiction: such as our belief in the idea of money. Money doesn’t exist outside of our shared belief in the idea of putting value into bits of paper and coin. This and other fictions can be challenged - libertarians argue, for instance, that printing money for purposes such as “quantitative easing” is equivalent to counterfeiting - but our ability to create realities through shared fictions is a powerful force. Historically, it's also served as the force at the foundation of any convert-seeking ideology.
Such fictions can be more compelling than the realities we all face (or not). An example of such a reality is the Amazon corporation. This article - and this one - outline how the success of Amazon is not through “innovation” or “business brilliance”. It’s through the old fashioned means used by monopolies over the centuries to 1) Squirm through legal loopholes, 2) Find a way to curry government favor (tax breaks), 3) Figure out ways to pay practically nothing to the people working for you, and 3) Pacify your customers by providing them, temporarily, with comforts they are asking for (breathtakingly cheap prices and heretofore unheard of conveniences). The first two of these result from highly organized lobbying efforts and the manipulation and/or financial persuasion of those in power: a universal theme repeated across time and cultures in human society.
The fourth of these above strategies provides the tiniest of openings for activists, labor advocates, and revolutionaries to focus their attention on to try and bring about social change when they unearth the social injustices at the heart of a corporation such as Amazon. These groups seek to prick our conscience by appealing to our common humanity. In the case of Amazon’s labor practices, this would mean a willingness to stand up for desperate laborers seeking work to eek by, and somehow care enough for them to fight for their right to have a baseline standard of security in their lives.
But while all of us may sympathize with their plight when we read about it, the sacrifices requested are rarely universally embraced. Why is that? Advocate groups continually fill our electronic mailboxes with appeals, news broadcasts incessantly notify us that corporate hegemony and government corruption is winning the day, and most of us despair enough when hearing about the situation that we also appease our consciences with whatever level of sacrifice we feel capable of making: money, volunteer time, letters to the editor. These slow but do not stem the tide of the various greed tsunamis currently unleashed on the world, all of which profit at great cost to our planet’s ecosystems and any sense we may have remaining of collective well-being and humanity as a species. The algorithmic march of companies such as Amazon, Google, Walmart and others has the backing of enormous financial resources embedded in strategic brains that seem to have been lobotomized to remove any trace of a conscience.
I’ve wrestled for a long time with what this means in terms of ideology. For those who have tracked my last 8 posts, outlining the brilliant research and ideological map-making laid out by Robert Jay Lifton’s research, I can find plenty of evidence for how the strategies he described have evolved and in many ways increased their effectiveness in pacifying their target populations. What's changed is how untethered these techniques have become from any actual ideology these days. How did this come to pass?
The only inkling I have about this at the moment is a sense that ideologies, for all their flaws, have been superseded by something even more insidious: the willingness to apply state-of-the art persuasion technologies in the service of blatantly disregarding laws, governments, common decency and any recognition of our universal plight as human beings for the simplest of reasons: to stuff ourselves at the trough of greed. And to do so as facelessly and with as little accountability as possible. This is reminiscent of the process first outlined by Hannah Arendt at the end of WWII, whose book Eichmann in Jerusalem led to her famous declarations about the banality of evil. Faceless bureaucrats who have lost the capacity to think and connect to other human beings in any meaningful way instead take refuge in following orders simply to survive. In the process they suck the air out of culture, integrity, and all the vibrancy that comes from actually living life instead of trying to fearfully devour it. Such faceless bureaucrats frequently work these days for appetitive corporations rather than ideological governments, although not exclusively so.
These bureaucrats had devastating impact when positioned high up in Nazi echelons which, for a time, ruled the roost in Europe and caused incredible damage to the social fabric. They continue to have a devastating influence today in the incremental, soul-destroying way many corporations operate.
Is it reasonable to ascribe the equivalent of Nazi-like power to destroy to the algorithmic bureaucrats at Amazon, Google or other corporate behemoths? Most people would find the idea ridiculous, just as most people concluded that the ease with which Stanley Milgram’s experimental subjects acquiesced to authority could never “happen to them”. We continually fail to recognize the tear that rips through our humanity when it begins so innocuously through actions such as suggesting books we might want to read. Passivity.
As corporations continue to ascend ladders of power they will also continue to incrementally supersede the influence of elected governments. Ultimately this points towards a time when accountability and responsibility could be all but extinguished. It's a primary reason the world is indeed becoming a great deal more activist. We know this isn't right.
The slow strangulation of our humanity sounds a lot like the end product of ideological conviction. This time, however, it's taking place with no greater underpinning idea greater than individual greed.