Coup du Jour – Eric Schmidt as CEO of America?

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In case you missed it, OWS co-founder, now Google software engineer, Justine Tunney is responsible for a petition calling for a coup d’etat that would hand over administrative authority of the United States to the tech industry and appoint Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt as CEO of America.  Whether Tunney is trying to be amusing, or she’s deranged, or she’s just another Twitter attention junkie, nobody is taking her too seriously if the comment section below the article in The Guardian is any indication.  In fact, this is one of those side-show moments that I questioned commenting on at all except for the unfortunate fact that so much of what now passes for discourse in the world  comprises so many side shows that mutate into headlines and round-table discussions on once-respectable news programs.  Even more relevant, though, is that even if Tunney herself is dismissible, her appeal might actually touch a few very real nerves running though the body of the American electorate.

For starters, the suggestion that any business leader ought to be president, that the presidency itself is like being a CEO, is a well-entrenched conservative idea also popular with many right-leaning libertarians.  Given that one of the universal complaints about government is that the elected are terrible stewards of “our money,” it’s a natural, albeit narrow-minded, instinct to want to elevate a successful business operator to the presidency so that he or she can “get our house in order.” On purely theoretical grounds, I have always quarreled with this premise because a corporation is not a democracy — I don’t care how flat you say your org chart is — so much as it is a benign dictatorship, usually designed to excel in a limited number of core competencies in the service of profitability.  Democracy isn’t efficient, giving everyone a voice isn’t efficient, balancing competing interests within a nation isn’t efficient; but inefficiency is one of the prices we pay for free speech, the right to redress the government, the right to assemble and organize, and so on.

Conversely, CEOs are conditioned toward efficiency and toward meeting quarterly goals for their shareholders.  As such, CEOs are not necessarily the best collaborators; they’re often not multi-dimensional thinkers; they frequently have egos way too big for Washington (which is saying something); and they’re not particularly oriented toward balancing the needs of the diverse and quarrelsome many. There are and have been CEOs who meet these criteria, but my point is that a strong P&L statement alone does not make a good resume for Leader of the Free World.  Interestingly though, while Tunney is standing on this weatherbeaten plank of the GOP, I think she’s simultaneously echoing sentiments among the left and libertarian left, who have come to think of technologies like social media as the antidote to corporate/government corruption and incompetence.  And this is where the bizarre confluence of Occupy zeal and the idea of appointing a less-than-one-percenter like Eric Schmidt as national leader might actually make some twisted sense in certain minds.

Occupy, after all, was a YouTube protest that was unfortunately almost as fleeting as that damn “What Does the Fox Say” video, and just about as likely to effect any tangible change in the world. At its core, I thought OWS began as a legitimate response to a genuine problem — wealth consolidation and the many systemic ways in which this economic cancer, eating away the middle class, is protected and perpetuated in the U.S.   But Occupy rather quickly manifest as the proverbial rebel without a clue — yet another social media side show in which the lead stories became a handful of viral videos depicting excessive force by certain police officers instead of a narrative relating any kind of clear, advancing agenda.  Thanks in part to the ephemeral nature of social media and its tendency to provoke an increase in conspiracy theory, the story of Occupy became the story of who was trying to shut it down rather than what it was meant to accomplish. Think OWS today, let alone years from now, and what probably remains are a few images of cops misusing pepper spray.  Imagine if all you could say about the civil rights movement is that some cops sprayed people with fire hoses.

Like it or not — and I certainly don’t — the Tea Party made Occupiers look like a bunch of fair-weather activists who seemed to think it was enough to conjure the illusion of a movement with all the trappings and also seemed to confuse mouse clicks with votes.  OWS generated images and buzz and “Likes” and a moment of fleeting outrage while the Tea Party got seats in the House of Representatives.  So, while Justine Tunney may be mockable for her hypocrisy, trying to trade on OWS bona fides from the rarefied heights of Googletopia and anointing the most corporate of corporate guys, the irony is that an event like OWS unwittingly does feed the pseudo-progressive trend toward a technocracy.  OWS was a functionally impotent movement with regard to addressing any serious issues, but one that simultaneously elevated the apparent relevance of citizens using smartphones and social media. By extension, this elevates the importance of the individuals who build those technologies.

In this sense occupy takes on an unintended second meaning.  While it was meant to express a contemporary sit-in whereby people occupy physical space as a form of protest, the millions of people passively engaged online were occupied in the sense that their attention was drawn particularly toward the aforementioned images of police misconduct.  While this is happening, the unseen irony is that the one percent of the one percent who own social media sites are saying “Ka-ching!” while many users are thinking, “Thank goodness for YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, or we would never know about these extraordinary (soon to be forgotten) events.”  Thus, I would argue that on at least a subconscious level, people come to think of a guy like Schmidt as a national leader of sorts.  It reminds me of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in which the 19th Century man with his technological prowess is to be given a title that doesn’t quite acknowledge that he’s the most powerful person in the realm.  Arthur remains The King, Merlin remains The Wizard, and the technologically skilled Yankee is given the title The Boss.

© 2014 – 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • This current generation has the attention span of goldfish.

    You are right the twitterers, facebookers, and youtubers have done nothing. To a (wo)man they have been distracted by glitz, photos with captions, and faux outrage. The world moves on and they stay complaining on a network run by those that would sell their souls for a couple of pennies.

    Pass the sick bucket.

  • The comparison between OWS and a certain other “grass roots” campaign that we’re deeply familiar with round these parts (moreso than its participants, it would seem) makes me think that we should get corporations to organise our social movements and revolutions.

    Has corporate consumerism reached its final stage? Perhaps, a business opportunity? Think the folks at YCombinator would be interested? I always wanted to start a company in the garage I don’t have…

    • I haven’t had time to check this out, but I hear Pussy Riot is owned by some wealthy businessman?

    • Justine Tumney is already ahead of you, I’m afraid. She wants to crowdfund a private militia. (There is nothing you can say to satirise Tumney that is more ridiculous then what she actually believes. She’s the personification of Poe’s Law).

      I know a fair bit about Tumney, and to address David’s theories- she isn’t joking, she probably isn’t deranged and she is undoubtedly a tiresome self-promoter. It’s worth noting that her claim to have founded OWS is very contentious; she definitely took the domain name and set up the Twitter account but anything more than that is debatable. Her ‘coup’ was only possible because OWS had declined so much.

      In a way, her increasing discomfort is a positive thing. It’s happening, specifically, because Big Tech are coming under attack more and more. See here for her whining. An extract:

      Back during Occupy, I fought alongside the unions and liberal NGOs. I gave everything I could. But those people still viciously attacked me.

      She’s particularly outraged by the brick that was thrown through a Google bus window. I can only reply by quoting New Model Army:

      Such horror, oh such a farce,
      A little bit of broken glass,
      You should think yourself lucky that this was done,
      You’ll have something you can whine about for years to come.

      It’s worth noting that she identifies her enemies as “the labor unions and many on the far-left”. Not liberals. Those who identify as the latter may want to seriously consider why the likes of Tumney don’t attack them.

      Which brings us to how influential the ideas she’s espousing are on the libertarian left. I think you’re right they may be on the vaguely “left-leaning”. That includes the Tumblr intersectionalists/the Twitterati. But, in the wider scheme of things, that crowd has no real influence on anyone outside their little bubble. But the actual, organised libertarian left, not so much. I really can’t see Tumney getting a smooth ride from the Wobblies, let alone the likes of Class War. She simply isn’t going to get anywhere with any group or individuals who are explicitly anti-capitalist. Her ideas are reformist, about dividing corporations into good and bad, not about abolishing them entirely. As such, she’s far more of a danger to liberals and progressives, who come from a similar broad perspective.

      (I’ll do OWS separately as this seems to be one of my days for long posts).

  • I think you’re right to suggest that OWS has basically failed, but I disagree with your theory on why. (I think most of your criticisms would be more accurate if focused on the rise of ‘clictivism’ and groups like Avaaz. Even there though, I’d link the issue to other forms of passive activism like writing letters to politicians).

    OWS wasn’t, mostly, an issue to do with technology. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think this is the danger you run with your focus on tech and the internet. You can end up myopically focusing on it at the exclusion of the wider picture, much like the techno-utopians you oppose. The issues with technology and OWS were largely symptoms of a wider malaise, not its cause.

    The very structure of OWS was a problem. It was very much based on stunts, not building a long-term movement with deep roots. That’s not new or caused by technology. It’s existed for decades. The Yippies, for example, operated in a similar way. However, the proposed tactic of occupying public space required a long term commitment that wasn’t sustainable with a stuntist approach. Comparing that to The Tea Party is telling. The latter was sensible enough to use an approach that allowed their activists to spend most of their time not engaged in activism. Any movement that relies primarily on full time activists is, almost inevitably, going to burn out.

    An abstract approach to the issues. This was partly because a lot of the OWS people were students and well-meaning lifestyle types. (It was actually a very middle class movement in many ways). That’s fine and I don’t want to judge people too harshly as I recognise their intentions were mostly good. But it meant that, while OWS had a vague broad approach of replacing the current system with something fairer, it didn’t link that to bread and butter issues. The ideological approach is all very well, but it needs to be relevant to people who are struggling to put food on the table and I don’t think OWS achieved that.

    The decline of working class identity and culture in the west. The working class, realistically, have been repeatedly defeated and demoralised since the 1970’s. That has to have an effect on a movement like OWS. There was no real concept of class in it. Even the “we are the 99%” slogan obfuscated class; someone on minimum wage does not have the same class interests as a stockbroker. You, yourself, show how deep this issue runs:

    wealth consolidation and the many systemic ways in which this economic cancer, eating away the middle class,

    It’s very telling that your concern here is for those in the middle, not at the bottom. That’s very common and an indicator that many progressives have largely abandoned the working class as the mechanism of social class. (Much like the ‘third worldism’ of 70’s Maoists).

    The decline of the traditional left. This isn’t completely a bad thing. I’d be quite happy to see Leninism confined to the dustbin of history. But what has gone and hasn’t been replaced by something new is the feeling of ideological coherence the left used to provide. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see something of value in Marx’s work. It’s my view that his analysis has stood the test of time, while his proposed solutions leave much to be desired. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I think you’d appreciate his analysis of technology.

    So that’s why I think OWS failed. More, if these issues aren’t resolved, I think future movements will fail for exactly the same reason.

    • Thanks, Sam, as always for a thoughtful kick of the tires. I agree with you about the fundamental reasons OWS actually failed. I don’t mean to suggest that technology caused its descent into irrelevance, and you’re absolutely right that its structural/ideological flaws are not new to the universe of activism. Nevertheless, just as we tend to say that Vietnam was “the first television war,” I would assert that, for better or worse, OWS was the first YouTube movement, at least in the U.S. Without social media and the omnipresence of smart phone cameras, even the stunts of OWS would probably have gone largely unnoticed. And I would stand by the theory that these technologies contributed to very quickly rewriting whatever fledgling narrative the movement might have crafted into a momentarily radicalized dead end. Moreover, I believe that, in a broader sense, social media helps feed an idea that stunts, tweets, shares, and likes are sufficient to effect some kind of real change. I think all effective political action requires a bit of theater and a lot of slow, tedious, grassroots labor. What I think is different and interesting about the digital age — and the reason I do think OWS is a subject for this blog — is that the nature of the theater has changed. It is omnipresent and freely accessible to everyone, but it also ephemeral. Additionally, I suspect that social media’s implicit lesson, particularly to the next generation, is that fifteen seconds worth of high-volume attention is what matters; hence, more stunts and less grunt-work. At the same time, I think it’s impossible to argue that social media has not atomized engagement in general for a lot of people.

      My reference to the middle class doesn’t ignore the folks at the bottom by any means. I believe in the principle that a solid middle class, meaning a majority of people who can afford a comfortable standard of living without struggling, makes for the most stable economy overall, including for those at the bottom. (And the top are always fine no matter what.) When I refer to weakening or hollowing out the middle class, I’m speaking generally about the reality that people who have what used to be good jobs struggle more (or have two of those jobs) to afford a median standard of living without stress, while more people slip below the line into poverty. We may also be trapped in some semantic differences here with terms like “working class.” In principle, both the blue-collar worker in the auto plant and the white collar bookkeeper in some office ought to both be able to afford “middle-class” lifestyles. Unfortunately, the trend toward wealth consolidation and bifurcation of the economy is lowering the prospects for both of these workers toward the strata we call the working poor. At the same time, millions of Americans who are technically well above that line are less able to cover many of the basics and perhaps save based on income from work alone. Meanwhile, a tiny percentage control most of the wealth in the country, which is of course what OWS meant to be about. The point is there will always be a top and a bottom, but I think the circumference of the circle that defines the “middle” matters a great deal. It doesn’t help when FOX News here says the poor live in luxury because they have refrigerators.

      It’s been quite some time since reading Marx, but I agree that his observations remain relevant while his solutions leave much to be desired. Doubtless, Engles felt similarly at times given Marx’s leeching off his friend to try to sustain his own middle class lifestyle.

      • Thanks for a well-thought out response.

        I guess the litmus test for me would be whether, if technology hadn’t been an issue at all, Occupy would have been any more successful. I strongly suspect it wouldn’t have. Occupy really was a triumph of wishful thinking over tactical sense, from its conception.

        Agreed on the need for tedious, unglamorous hard work. For political theatre to achieve anything, it needs to be part of a wider social movement, as with the civil right struggle. King Mob dressing up as Father Christmas and giving away toys at Selfridges may be amusing. But, in the greater scheme of things, they didn’t actually achieve anything. And if you go too far down that road you end up with the individualist terrorism of the Weathermen or the Angry Brigade. Absolute political cul-de-sac.

        I’d agree with your comments on social media, but none of this is new. Even techno-utopianism, specifically, predates the Internet. I’d trace it back to the 19th century. Today’s transhumanists are just a new reflection of the ideology that spawned eugenics. (Hate that comparison though I’m sure they would, I believe it’s a very valid one). I’d also agree with you that social media has atomized engagement, but again I think that’s a reflection of modern society as opposed to its cause. Are people really more atomized now then a factory worker in the Industrial Revolution?

        Having just checked with my (American) girlfriend, you’re right about there being a semantic issue about class here! Apparently, in the UK some of the skilled workers we describe as “working class” would be considered “middle class” in the US. So, for us, people would be in the bottom half of society, but in the US it implies poverty. Still, I think it’s part of a wider issue. The left has lost any kind of organic connection with those people and that’s been the case for quite some time. Unless that’s addressed, we’re just putting a sticking plaster over a broken leg.

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