The Case For Degrowth

We now know that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an insanity. Not just an “imperfect measure of social well-being,” but a wholly irrational, arbitrary, and dangerous construct that must be ditched sooner rather than later. This is becoming more and more widely appreciated by economists—even the Harvard Business Review now says that “GDP is not a measure of human well-being,” and conservative policy analyst (and Mitt Romney adviser!) Oren Cass wrote in the New York Times a few days ago:

[R]arely have such economic indicators been so entirely beside the point. Seriously: Who cares? What good does G.D.P. do, if people we love are falling seriously ill and dying in unprecedented numbers; if the rhythms of daily life vital to our happiness have gone haywire and our social connections have atrophied?

There have been efforts to develop alternative frameworks that get us away from using GDP as a measure of economic success, from the EU’s Beyond GDP initiative to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index to economist Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” (the economy can be pictured as a doughnut—in the center is too little, on the outside is too much, and what we need is to be in the delicious sustainable ring). Yet newspapers are still filled with headlines about what the GDP has done that implicitly treat it as the measure of economic health: did the GDP expand? Did it contract? How do we get it growing again? We are a long way from shaking off the strange folk belief that a country’s job is to maximize the numerical “growth” of its products and services. 

GDP is a measure of the market value of goods and services sold over a given period of time. The more that consumers consume, the higher the GDP. If twice as many cars are sold in the United States next year compared to this year, and all other things are equal, the GDP will rise. If twice as many people pay to have surgery, it will likewise go up. Mazzucato gives the example: if she marries her housekeeper, and they are doing the exact same work but in the context of a personal relationship rather than an employment relationship, the GDP will go down. If people are unusually healthy, the market value of medical services will go down. Of course, there are absolutely colossal amounts of care work that are performed without compensation. The classic critique of GDP is to point out that even incredibly destructive pollution can improve it: a factory could be getting lots of people sick, but their sickness is not being measured in GDP. In fact, GDP is growing, because (1) lots of people are buying the factory’s products (2) the sick people are buying medical treatment and (3) people are buying ways of mitigating the pollution.

A significant problem here, as Mariana Mazzucato documents in her history of the concept of economic value, The Value of Everything, is that over time “price” has become conflated with “value.” In fact, this is so commonplace in everyday thinking that, even though I think we all can nod and smile at Oscar Wilde’s famous description of the cynic as someone who knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing” (a phrase that now better describes economists), we infrequently consider how something could be worth a lot without actually being worth a lot.

But take our polluting factory: every year, it may be causing catastrophically negative effects. Its benefits may be negligible, say 50 jobs and the toy plastic SpongeBobs that it manufactures. But shutting it down would “shrink the economy,” because whether “the economy” is “growing” or “shrinking” is not measured by whether the aggregate amount of human social well-being is increasing or decreasing but by whether we’re buying more shit. Thus the majority of us could be more and more immiserated every day—unhappy, hopeless, sick, lonely—but so long as the market value of the goods and services we consume in the aggregate is going up, the “economy” will grow. And because whether the economy is growing is an aggregated measure, the GDP does not look at who is getting the benefits. It could well be that even on the very narrow criterion of “consuming more products,” a small wealthy subset of people are actually getting most of the enjoyment. (Not that increased consumption is a good proxy for well-being even for the upper classes—the lives of the super-rich are often hollow and unsatisfying, because it turns out that having 40 cars does not give you four times the satisfaction of having 10 cars.)

As Mazzucato explains, this represents a shift in how the economy is talked about. 200 years ago, “value” was assumed to be a quality that things had before they had prices. There were debates over what created value. But prices themselves were separate, for an obvious reason: the air we breathe has value, but no price. Bullshit financial products have prices, but serve only to transfer wealth from poor, desperate people who need money to wealthy, conniving people who already have it. The debate about “value” is necessarily philosophical, and requires, well, value judgments. What is “worth having” is something that we differ on, and there are no purely scientific answers.

Unfortunately, as economics became decoupled from philosophy (the field used to be called “political economy,” which better reflects the fact that economic ideas are necessarily political), and developed pretensions of being a science, many economists sought a way to pass off their normative beliefs as mere empirical facts. They reasoned as follows: if something is bought in a marketplace, without anyone coercing the buyer or seller, clearly the buyer desired to buy it and the seller desired to sell it. If the buyer was willing to pay more, they clearly valued the thing more. (I am willing to pay more for a house with four bedrooms than a house with three because a house with four bedrooms has something extra that I want.) Free market transactions are therefore mutually beneficial and would not occur unless both parties perceived themselves to be made better off by transacting. For a third party (the economist) to say that the transaction is not valuable is to impose subjective value judgments. The economist does not take a position on which transactions ought to happen. Instead, the measure of value is preference. If I buy a hamburger, my preference for a hamburger has been satisfied. Evaluating the success of an economy by the market value of its goods and services therefore seemed sensible, rather than insane, because it showed the degree to which people were having their subjective tastes (which it is not the economist’s job to question) satisfied under conditions of perfect freedom.

Growth in the provision of goods and services is therefore intrinsically good: it means more mutually beneficial transactions, thus more satisfaction. And while any sensible economist would admit that growth is an “imperfect proxy” for well-being, on the whole, if we are buying more stuff, it means we want more stuff, and if we both want more stuff and are getting more stuff, it means we are getting more of what we want, and are thus better off. There is a common assumption in economics that human beings have “infinite wants,” meaning that it will always be better to have more rather than less, so long as we can supply “more.” (More of what? More of whatever has a price in the market.) At the very beginning of Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus’ widely-used Economics textbook, it is made clear that mainstream economics is premised on the idea that we all have “unlimited wants”: 

If you add up all the wants, you quickly find that there are simply not enough goods and services to satisfy even a small fraction of everyone’s consumption desires. Our national output would have to be many times larger before the average American could live at the level of the average doctor or major-league baseball player. Moreover, outside the United States, particularly in Africa, hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger and material deprivation. Given unlimited wants, it is important that an economy make the best use of its limited resources.

 In fact, the “unlimited wants” premise is false: only a select number of human beings, such as Jeff Bezos, can literally never be satisfied no matter how much they have. Most of us have modest desires: good food, satisfying occupations of our time, some entertainment now and then, positive social relationships, and a soft bed to sleep on. But when wants are treated as “unlimited,” with everyone aspiring to live like a “major league baseball player,” (and, presumably, wanting even more once they have reached that level), no amount of economic growth will ever be “enough.” Thus to satisfy “desires” we must perpetually increase the quantity (not just the quality, or the distribution) of goods and services produced. 

But more goods/services quite obviously doesn’t in and of itself make the world better, without any analysis of what those goods/services actually are or what people’s lives are like. It is easy to imagine a society in which the market value of economic activity is going up and up, but the general trend is toward dystopia: the number of nuclear weapons is growing annually, which creates jobs, but an alarming percentage of people are exhausted all the time and want to kill themselves. I say it is easy to imagine such a society, because we live in one. Likewise, it is easy to imagine a society in which there is no growth but people are relatively content; go and try to explain to the isolated Sentinelese tribe why they ought to be maximizing their development and see how they feel about it. (They will probably fill you with arrows, and they will have a point.) 

Mazzucato points out that the prevailing orthodoxy has led to the abandonment of critical normative questions and the embrace of mindless tautologies. Does Wall Street add value or is it parasitic? Well, conveniently for Wall Street, it adds value by definition, because under “price is value,” if it did not add value it would not prosper. Mazzucato argues that all kinds of socially harmful activities are therefore incentivized because, with the field uninterested in doing normative philosophy, we do not have the language to evaluate whether various economic activities are good. There are jokes about alleged measurement mistakes in the Soviet Union, things like “measuring coal production by the number of tons of coal shipped from one place to another, resulting in the same ton of coal being shipped in a circle over and over.” But how are the perverse incentives that fueled the opioid crisis any different? Purdue Pharma makes money hooking people on drugs, and has a direct incentive to downplay the risks of its product and convince as many people to try it as possible. 

If you’re a free market libertarian, it’s not clear that there’s anything wrong with this. In fact, there’s a fascinating book from the 1970s by libertarian Walter Block called Defending the Undefendable, which makes arguments in favor of pimps, slumlords, blackmailers, corrupt cops, and drug pushers. The same argument recurs throughout: there’s a market for what they do, therefore what they do is good. Block has the courage to embrace the reductio ad absurdum: if the market produces outcomes that appall us morally and seem to be making a cruel and exploitative society, then instead of this indicting the market, it indicts morality. Given that the divine Invisible Hand does no wrong, we must change our principles to accommodate its actions, rather than demanding an economy that operates in accordance with our principles. Blackmailing someone produces value in market terms, therefore it is good, actually. 

Crucially, “price = value” means that a whole lot of good work that is “unpriced” goes undervalued. Mazzucato points out that confusing market worth for actual worth has encouraged the absolutely absurd idea that “the private sector produces the wealth, while governments can only tax it away,” and while some government services are necessary, they always feed on the productivity of the private sector rather than creating value by themselves. This, Mazzucato says, is plainly false: a public library adds value to a community even if it generates no revenue, it’s just that the value cannot be quantitatively measured. Same with research at a public university. Same with public school teachers and firefighters and OSHA inspectors. The problem is that the value they add is qualitative, imprecise, and clearly value-based; impossible to measure quantitatively. Growth in market value, on the other hand, is something we can measure, even if that measurement tells us almost nothing about our actual well-being. (After all, a banana taped to a wall can fetch $120,000.) It’s easier to look at whether the little arrow of random stuff we measure is going up or down than to have a debate over what it is we really want. (The latter question implicates the entire meaning of life, which many people don’t want to think about, because it’s scary and the indifferent universe hands us no answers.)  

Jason Hickel’s new book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World is a lucid, accessible, and crucial contribution to the debate over what we ought to value and how we ought to measure it. Hickel, whose specialty is rigorously debunking Pinkerian myths about the wonders of capitalist progress, is a proponent of “degrowth,” the idea that we need to stop measuring our well-being by how much our market economic activity expands, and instead make our economy the right size to fit our real needs and the finite resources of the planet.

Degrowth is a little bit of a misleading term. It implies that while right now our economies grow continuously, that growth is environmentally destructive, and actually what we need to do is shrink them all. But “degrowth” proponents are not in favor of universal shrinking, or of the shrinking of “everything generally” as opposed to a particular subset of things. Hickel does say that the ideology of limitless growth is irrational, and that excessive resource consumption in extremely rich countries needs to be curbed, but “degrowth” is not a kind of plea to return to nature and give up the wondrous benefits of technological development (you will pry my iPhone from my dead hands, though I will support any political platform that promises to abolish Microsoft Word). It is about having technologies arise as a result of some specific social need rather than because they make rich people a great deal of money. A social media platform should not exist to put eyeballs on advertising but to facilitate healthy communication between people. Degrowth is a plea to measure the economy more soundly, to pull back what needs to be pulled back, instead of just mindlessly assuming that more is better when, in many cases,
“less is more.” 

Hickel asks us to think of the growth of economies the way we would think of the growth of a plant or a human. A human needs to grow, and grow a lot, from the time they are born to adulthood. But “growth” is not treated as the end goal, with “more physical human matter” being our measure of the quality of a person’s life. Infinite exponential growth of a human being would be a horrifying nightmare; the endless growth of animal cells is cancer, and it kills. Instead, we grow to the point at which we are “fully grown,” and then we stop (while continuing, hopefully, to develop intellectually and emotionally; i.e. in non-quantifiable ways).

Likewise, the poor economies of the world generally need to grow. But the rich economies should not continue to grow for growth’s own sake, if doing so is ultimately destructive and contributes nothing additional to well-being. Instead, economic success should be measured on a series of other criteria that may be correlated with growth but are ultimately indifferent to whether growth is great or small, positive or negative. Costa Rica has a longer life expectancy than the United States despite having a per-capita GDP 1/6 the size of ours. Here’s Hickel:

Over and over again, the empirical evidence shows that it is possible to achieve high levels of human development without high levels of GDP…. In theory we could achieve all of these social goals [health, education, employment, democracy, nutrition, social support, and life satisfaction] without any additional GDP growth at all, simply by investing in public goods and, and distributing income and opportunity more fairly.

In fact, as we’ve seen, because measurements of growth exclude a bunch of incredibly important things, and can include a bunch of socially destructive things, additional growth can actually be bad for people. Much of Hickel’s book is about climate change and ecological destruction, and the way the infinite growth imperative clashes tragically with the realities of a finite planet. 

Hickel responds to the arguments of “ecomodernists” and proponents of “green growth” that limitless growth can be reconciled with environmental stability. In fact, he says, this is science fiction. It ignores the realities of what it takes to extract and use an ever-increasing amount of natural resources year after year. The word “new technology” cannot be used as a magical incantation that makes the material world disappear. Green growth proponents have argued that growth can be “decoupled” from environmental impacts: we can have ever-more goods and services without ever-more material and energy use. But Hickel cites research arguing that “decoupling” is ultimately impossible, and he debunks statistics purporting to demonstrate that limitless growth doesn’t depend on unsustainable resource use. Hickel is skeptical of those who believe we can reach “sustainability” without eliminating the unsustainable capitalist growth imperative itself. 

The climate change and environment sections of Hickel’s books are distressing and do not make for easy reading. Importantly, Hickel stresses the fact that climate change is in many ways an act of theft from the Global South by the United States and Europe, because we have created the bulk of the problem but bear comparatively less of the most devastating consequences. In fact, as he does in his earlier book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions, Hickel stresses the extent to which contemporary global capitalism is built on theft and violence: Britain likes to think it “developed” India but in fact simply extracted a vast amount of wealth from it illegitimately. The United States, as we know, simply expelled the Native population from its land (and then had the audacity to tell the world about the importance of private property rights). An important aspect of relentless growth is that it is usually brutal: the capitalist in search of profits thinks nothing of destroying a rainforest or blowing off a mountaintop or keeping laborers in slavery-like conditions, because after all, what the capitalist is doing is good by definition. We don’t price the consequences, and therefore we don’t value them, and that’s precisely how climate change has become such a mess: fossil fuel companies can knowingly create a giant problem for everyone else, but that problem is diffuse and long-term and hard to quantify and the precise scientific predictions have a level of uncertainty, so the companies in question don’t get sued out of existence for the harm they’ve caused. In fact, they prosper, and everyone is on their side: Barack Obama even boasted about escalating oil and gas production under his presidency because, after all, growth is good. 

Hickel argues that many policy-makers and intellectuals have denied the scale of the climate change problem and the scale of the action that will be required to deal with it. Because the fundamental goodness of capitalism and the growth imperative are treated as articles of faith, there is a tendency to frame the question as “How can we solve the climate crisis without having to change the fundamentals of our economic system?” rather than “How can we change the fundamentals of our economic system in a way that helps us solve the climate crisis?” Debates on climate change policy are often based on the premise that we will accept any solution that doesn’t require us to do anything differently to what we’re doing now. By cordoning off all correct answers as prohibited, we have ensured that the problem is destined to remain unsolved. Thus, because it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” if stopping the end of the world required ending capitalism, well, so long, world. 

But Hickel’s book is not actually pessimistic. In fact, it is profoundly hopeful and solution-oriented. This makes it far more appealing and worthwhile than doom prophecies like David Wallace-Wells’ panic-inducing The Uninhabitable Earth, which scare the shit out of the reader and then leave them feeling helpless. Hickel comes to us with radially encouraging news: the fact that it is not actually that expensive or resource-intensive to provide the ingredients of “the good life” means that we can, in fact, have a just and sustainable world. We are not locked inexorably into a brutal competition over scarce resources, where only the select few can live well and everyone else must suffer and perish, or labor so that those special few can prosper. In fact, everyone can prosper, if prosperity is defined rationally and we have an economy that is built to create that egalitarian prosperity rather than to help Jeff Bezos get ever-richer

Hickel does not play down the consequences of human activity for the environment—far, far from it—but he does offer a rather beautiful vision of an alternative way of living. He draws from animism in his thinking about nature: seeing the world around us as alive and having intrinsic value, rather than as something inert to be conquered and subjugated. It’s important to adopt a new kind of philosophy, because at the moment, wild animals, being unpriced, are valueless. (Except to the extent that they can be sold and turned into pianos or pets.) Thus wild animals are destroyed by the billions, and their habitats paved over. Anything that cannot justify itself by producing market value can be destroyed. Of course, it’s harder to develop a new way of thinking with new concepts of value; “price as value” is a convenient way of evading life’s toughest questions.

Both Mazzucato and Hickel emphasize that the central problem is not that the economy grows, but that the economic system is irrational. Hickel says, “None of this is to say that growth is bad, in and of itself. It’s not growth that’s the problem, it’s growthism,” by which he means the absurd belief that growth is the end rather than the means. Mazzucato says we need to focus “less on the rate of growth and more on its direction,” meaning asking the question: what are we growing? Is it our health, the strength of our relationships, the richness of our culture, the quality of our meals? Or is it simply “the amount of stuff we use” regardless of what that stuff is doing to us? 

I am not sure I like the title of Hickel’s book, Less is More, because while it’s true that less can be more—less work for the same money gives me more free time, less poisonous water makes children better off—it does make people feel like they’re going to have to cope with less materially than they have now. For some people this is true, but many readers of his book would, in an egalitarian world, actually end up with more than they have now. In fact, Hickel isn’t really arguing that “less is more,” at least insofar as that implies a kind of ascetic philosophy in which material poverty becomes spiritual richness. The actual argument he makes is much more complicated and interesting, even if it doesn’t lend itself as easily to a snappy book title. Roughly, it is this: an ideology of “more for the sake of more” actually makes us less well off overall, and in order to have more well-being, we need to have less of some things we currently think we need to have more of, while having more of some things we currently have too little of. (As I said, I see why he picked the title he did.) The ultimate implications are:

We need high income countries to scale down excess energy and material use; we need a rapid transition to renewables; and we need to shift to a post-capitalist economy that’s focused on human well-being and ecological stability rather than perpetual growth.

Could anyone looking at the climate data disagree? It does feel like the idea of perpetual growth is a kind of mental virus that has afflicted people in the 21st century. Hopefully it will be looked back on as a bizarre aberration, as future societies will think it obvious that we need to evaluate economic success according to a wide variety of normative qualitative factors. These factors will be “squishy,” in that there will not be a scientific way to resolve disputes about what they are or which should take precedence. But the idea that relentless accumulation and consumption are rational–while convenient for those whose personal interest is in relentlessly accumulating and consuming–is yet another example of subjective value judgments pretending to be Reason Itself. The “degrowth” philosophy, while misleadingly named (some places need to grow more, some to degrow certain things a bit while growing others, i.e. the United States needs fewer giant gas-guzzling trucks and more free medical services), is certainly far more sensible and healthy than prevailing economic orthodoxy. Jason Hickel is no primitivist, and degrowth is about being better off, not worse off. By having less relentless mindless growth, we can have more of those things that make life worthwhile but do not produce profits for capitalists. 

I would like to see critiques of Less is More, and I am sure there is something in there for everyone to disagree with. But if everyone read it, we would at least be having a worthwhile debate on the right questions, like: what should the economy be for and what do we want out of it? How can we develop an economy that values unpriced things, like the natural world and personal domestic labor? How can we measure qualitative factors, and won’t any metric of success always be biased toward things that are most easily measurable? Can capitalism ever be “sustainable” or does its prioritization of short-term gain by individual private parties always come at the expense of the overall collective good? What level of resource consumption do we actually need in order for everyone to live well? How much is more than our fair share? What is the “right size” for an economy, if it’s not “as big as conceivably possible”? Hickel has answers to some of these, and I have my own, but the questions are not asked nearly enough. Degrowth is not really a particular prescription for the right amount of growth; it’s an attempt to focus our attention on the difficult matters that “growthism” overlooks. 

The Past and Future of the Socialist Sunday School

When the winter holidays would roll around in the late 1910s, the students of Milwaukee teacher Kenneth Shedd treated their peers to a very different kind of Christmas pageant. Instead of putting on a nativity play or singing “Silent Night,” the children mounted a performance of The Strike of Santa Claus, in which Santa announces that Christmas is cancelled because he has decided to strike in solidarity with their parents, who are being worked so hard by the ruling class that they did not have adequate time to prepare for the holidays. In a rousing end to the performance, the children of the world persuade Santa to go back to delivering presents by all vowing to vote socialist.

The students in question were able to perform The Strike of Santa Claus without so much as raising an eyebrow (never mind being banished to the principal’s office) because they were not at a run-of-the-mill public school, or even a private one––they were attending one of the many Socialist Sunday Schools active in America at that time. First rising to prominence in Britain and the United States in the late 19th century, the movement was eventually championed in countries around the world by radicals who felt that education was a key part of building a more equitable future, and believed that the values imparted to children in the course of conventional schooling stood in direct opposition to that goal. Today, they are largely forgotten as a small movement that eventually fizzled out, but the rebellious spirit they encouraged in students is no less necessary today than it was a century ago.

When labor activist Mary Gray set up a soup kitchen for workers and their families during the 1892 dock strike in London, she was profoundly moved by the poverty and lack of education of the children she saw there, many of whom had little access to school. A former Sunday school teacher herself, Gray had since abandoned her faith and become involved in leftist organizing, befriending Eleanor Marx and other prominent figures of the workers’ movement of the day. Now, however, an opportunity presented itself for Gray to use her former experience for a new purpose––to teach not only reading and writing but solidarity and compassion, how to hold a strike and why not to break one. It’s recorded that her first improvised class had just two pupils. Two decades later, an article in the newspaper Young Socialist recorded over 100 socialist Sunday Schools across Great Britain, collectively reaching over 10,000 students ranging in age from children to adults. 

In the United States, too, the idea of schools for radical thought caught on among families in the labor movement. Historian J. Donald Wilson writes that the United States had roughly 100 English-language Socialist Sunday Schools between the years 1900 and 1920, not to mention an unrecorded number of schools that conducted their classes in a foreign language. Though heterogeneous in nature––there was no national curriculum or collection of standards to be enforced––the schools coalesced around the same core values. For teachers, many of whom had themselves grown up poor and been forced to work from a young age, these schools became an opportunity to give the new generation the kind of joyful childhood experiences they themselves hadn’t had, and to help build a world where no child would be deprived of their education because of poverty. For parents, these schools provided a chance to instill socialist ethical values in their children, values that they felt were being eroded by the regular educational environment.

The Socialist Sunday School movement was born around the same time that Taylorist ideas of scientific management––which transformed humans into machines via its singular focus on output and optimum productivity––were coming into vogue not only on the factory floor (where many child laborers still toiled despite the best efforts of reformers) but in the classroom, with education authorities calling for the elimination of “waste” and the precise documentation of students’ activities and the speed at which they were executed. Meanwhile, structural changes to how school boards were composed made it increasingly difficult for ethnic minorities and labor activists to win seats.

The Socialist Sunday School shared certain resonances with the Labor Church, a religious tendency that blended Christian ethical teachings with socialist values and rose to prominence at around the same time. What set the Socialist Sunday Schools apart, however, was that they adopted the trappings of Christianity but not the content. They weren’t a place for children to learn Bible stories: their hymnals contained “The Internationale” and “Solidarity Forever.” Their Ten Commandments instructed children to “honour good men, be courteous to all men, bow down to none” and to not “think that he who loves his own country must hate and despise other nations, or wish for war, which is a remnant of barbarism.” Though differing on questions of theology, both the Socialist Sunday School movement and the Labor Church movement were united in a desire to teach socialism as a moral philosophy and in their deeply held belief in the possibility of earthly paradise.

In many senses, classes in a Socialist Sunday School would be familiar to students of conventional schools. A 1918 record of Socialist Sunday School curricula, for instance, includes literature by classic writers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Nikolai Gogol, Oscar Wilde, and Upton Sinclair. But lessons also stressed themes such as class struggle, consciousness-raising, and the meaning of the word “scab.” Even beyond the curriculum’s inclusion of Marxist ideas, these schools were a radical departure from educational norms both at the time and today. In a 1910 newspaper article, Socialist Sunday School teacher Kenneth Thompson wrote that “the children select their own officers…and they are given instruction in conducting business meetings. This is one of the practical lessons that is not taught in any other school.” Students were able to create and enforce their own rules, even overruling the proposals of teachers and administrators. An account of a school in Rochester, NY stated that while there were tests, students could elect not to take them if they so desired. 

Art by Skutch.

When you read historical accounts of these schools, they sound, quite simply, like a lot of fun. Being asked to capture the attention of a roomful of children on a weekend morning meant that teachers had to be inventive with their curricula and depart from the typical rote learning model. Students sang and drew; they wrote and starred in their own plays; they went out into nature. In the same 1910 article, Thompson recalled: “The League had a picnic for the school at Piedmont Park in April, and we all had an enjoyable time. Some of us had a lively time caring for the young revolutionists.”

Phrases like “young revolutionists” and “good little rebels” come up again and again with reference to the children who attended these schools. Teachers and community members viewed the young pupils of these schools with deep seriousness––they were not just bodies to be disciplined, rabble-rousers to be brought to order. They were fellow thinkers whose needs had to be addressed, whose thoughts had to be heard, whose opinions had to be acted on. They were, as some referred to them, “little comrades.”

Socialist Sunday Schools were also explicitly internationalist in their outlook, and anti-war at a time when such views could be labeled as dangerously seditious. In contrast to English-only, assimilation-minded mainstream schools, children of immigrants could receive instruction at Socialist Sunday Schools in a language they were more accustomed to speaking, and students of any ethnic or religious background (or professing any leftist tendency) were welcome. Socialist Sunday Schools were also coed, and some fostered discussion about issues such as women’s suffrage. The schools’ leftist spirit continued onto the playground as well: they explicitly opposed the competitive spirit that undergirded so many of the activities in conventional schools, seeing it as a value inextricably linked to capitalism and ultimately to human suffering. Many schools taught children games in which there was no winner but everyone took turns. Above all else, students were taught to understand the power structures that undergirded the world around them and to question their necessity rather than accepting them as given. In the hands of radical teachers, simple biology lessons on flowers and birds became entry points for discussions of gender roles, the division of labor, and the abolition of private property.

Undoubtedly, one of the main goals of Socialist Sunday Schools was to educate students in the history and values of the left in the hopes that they would grow up to join the struggle. But another key goal promoted by supporters of the movement––one often missed by reactionary critics who attempted to have the schools shut down for fears of indoctrination––was their emphasis on freedom of thought. For those who ran these schools or sent their children there, it was the weekday schools, not their weekend counterparts, that were dangerously doctrinaire, teaching respect for private property, instilling nationalism, and tacitly presenting class hierarchies as natural. Praising the Socialist Sunday School movement in a 1915 newspaper article, Eugene V. Debs lamented that “the child of the worker is taught to revere the institutions of capitalism.” The goal of these schools, as he saw it, was to push back against the pro-capital messaging that children received from mass culture: “Every child is a potential revolutionist. Whether he becomes one in fact will depend upon his intellectual environment and training during the formative period of his career.” For Debs and the Socialist Sunday School reformers, teaching children about socialism wasn’t enslaving them to dogma––it was setting them free from the dogma that they were already being bombarded with from all sides.

Unsurprisingly, these schools often came up against fierce opposition from anti-leftists, for whom the prospect of a group of children learning about class struggle was a nightmare come true. The schools’ emphasis on internationalism over patriotism riled many who saw such a position as an attack on America. Others claimed that the schools’ textbooks taught such “scandalous” concepts as free love and presented a moral danger to impressionable children. (The curricula of these schools weren’t standardized, so it’s possible that some textbooks at the time did teach free love, but these kinds of claims were also a standard attack made by conservatives of the period. At least one Socialist Sunday School textbook, written in 1912 by Wobbly and birth control campaigner Caroline Nelson, did contain some sex ed lessons, which would have been very scandalous for the time.)

In a 1907 letter to the editor entitled “Wicked Socialist Sunday School” published in The New York Times, Edward F. Dutton pleaded that a judge who had recently jailed someone for displaying a red flag should exercise the same harsh judgment against Socialist Sunday School teachers. He wrote, “It is certainly the duty of the authorities to locate this Sunday school and forever put an end to the instilling of the pernicious doctrines of Socialism into the minds of the youth in this great and glorious country.” Another article in the Times a year later carried the pearl-clutching headline “Socialist Sunday School at Brighton Beach Propagating Class Hatred.” In the United Kingdom, the fact that many Socialist Sunday Schools gathered in council-owned buildings meant that they were at the mercy of local politicians and could be evicted if Conservatives won a majority. Though Socialist Sunday Schools continued to function in Great Britain into the 1970s, the movement petered out in the United States after the 1920s, their existence made increasingly tenuous by the Red Scare.

In 2016, DSA member Hae-Lin Choi, wanting to recreate the positive atmosphere of her own (Christian) Sunday school upbringing while teaching leftist values, met with a group of like-minded families and decided to create a modern-day Socialist Sunday School in New York. The twice-monthly classes she and the community put together covered topics such as corporate greed, the need to organize, and environmentalism. The students sang “Solidarity Forever” together; they colored and drew. There were field trips to parks and to protests. In both content and in spirit, Choi’s program closely mirrored the efforts that had preceded it a century before.

Could the school created by Choi and her comrades become a movement, particularly now that changes necessitated by coronavirus invite a broader consideration of our post-pandemic education system? If so, what would a Socialist Sunday School reimagined for today look like? Today’s “little rebels” might help tend a community garden or cook community dinners as part of mutual aid networks or lessons about food security; they might have a mini-drag pageant to learn about queer history and explore the idea of gender; they might go on radical walking tours of their communities and design monuments to commemorate the stories that the urban fabric currently leaves out; they might videocall classrooms in other parts of the country and the world to foster international friendships and solidarity. At the same time, I would hope that such a movement could also include programming for older learners, forming part of a broader socialist project to make education something that doesn’t stop at one’s teens or twenties (barring the infinity of grad school). A new Socialist Sunday School movement should embrace the idea that education is not a phase of one’s life to be slogged through, summarily completed, and packed away. Rather, it should be something that people of all ages not only have access to but may look forward to with sincere excitement and joy. Yet in thinking through the idea of a modern Socialist Sunday School, what strikes me is less what would be adapted for the times as much as what could stay the same, what is still necessary, so many years on, to teach.

It is not hard to imagine, of course, that modern Socialist Sunday Schools would face the same opposition as their predecessors. Inevitably, right-wing and centrist detractors will raise the objection: doesn’t this constitute indoctrination? The assumption implicit in such a question is that “more acceptable” schools––conventional schools––contain no such element of value-inculcation. Yet just as there is no truly neutral media source––no newspaper or broadcasting service perfectly shorn of positionality––so too is there no education that is devoid of values. This is present in the stories textbooks tell and leave out, in the books teachers choose for the classrooms and the ones they leave on the library shelves, in the morals they tease out of literature, in why and how they discipline students, in the degree of autonomy students have in making decisions about their own learning, in how and why children are praised. Indeed, for all that “critical thinking” was given lipservice in syllabi and curricula when I was in high school, my own memories of those years is of a painful lack of control over what I learned, of an inability to question what I was taught, of a sense that my duty as a student was to memorize the contents of my textbook and not to interrogate the process behind its composition. And all of this occurred in an environment where our movements, behaviors, and speech were strictly monitored and subject to punishment if deemed inappropriate, where the military held yearly on-campus recruitment drives and where the threat of random police checks was constantly held above our heads to keep us in line. To those who would reject the idea of a modern Socialist Sunday School movement as ideological indoctrination––a sentiment shared by critics a century before––my question is this: are the conventional schools you would prefer not equally ideological? 

Whereas the laborers of 150 years ago were confronted with the introduction of Taylorism, we are faced with a kind of “neo-Taylorism” enabled by surveillance technologies that enable ever more tracking of worker productivity, whether through movement-monitoring watches or employee microchips. The widely-used term “human capital” assigns values to human skills and knowledge based solely upon economic worth. These are ideas that we are learning implicitly in our schools: in the never-ending cuts made to “unnecessary” arts programs, in what is deemed a requirement and what is classified as an elective, in standardized testing’s flattening of learning into percentage points and students into products. And these are ideas that are brought to cruel and explicit fruition in the violence directed at students of color by school police, in a school-to-prison pipeline that decides beforehand who is an expendable part of society. If this is what traditional schools are teaching us, perhaps a nontraditional school is necessary to teach new values––and to equip us to create a more just world for all.

Your Oppression Was Predictable

A 17-year-old Trump supporter named Kyle Rittenhouse has been arrested for first-degree murder after opening fire on a group of people during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, leaving two dead and one injured. Donald Trump himself disavowed the killings, but some conservatives have defended Rittenhouse. Ann Coulter has been, predictably, the most extreme, saying she wanted the boy as her president. Trump-supporting former Major League Baseball player Aubrey Huff called Rittenhouse a “national treasure.” Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosas said that the killings were “100 percent justified self-defense.” 

Anyone surprised to see parts of the right celebrating an accused murderer as a hero–or view this as a totally new, emerging fascist threat–should better acquaint themselves with the country’s history. From Andrew Jackson to the Kent State shooting to Chris Kyle, mass killers have often been celebrated by conservatives when they targeted the country’s official enemies. Even William Calley, who oversaw the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, became a kind of folk hero back home in the United States, with a Top 40 song paying tribute to him. If you kill the “right” people, you’ll get a statue in your honor, and if Trump is reelected I would be shocked if Rittenhouse doesn’t get a speaking slot at the 2024 Republican National Convention. (Assuming there are still elections in this country by then.) Like Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times, I find the celebration of Rittenhouse deeply chilling, and a very bad sign for what a second Trump term would be like. 

But I’d like to dwell on a particular type of defense of Rittenhouse made by Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro, one that casts itself not as the gleeful celebration of enemies being massacred, but as a neutral, Reasonable observation of Facts. Carlson and Shapiro stopped short of calling Rittenhouse a hero and declaring him presidential material (although it rather appears he does possess the skills and mindset required to reach the highest ranks of politics or the police force). Instead they said that what Rittenhouse did was predictable. Here’s Carlson:

“How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?

And Shapiro

“The mob ruled in Wisconsin and chaos reigned in Wisconsin…It is a perfectly predictable response that you’re going to get people who, in vigilante fashion, decide that they’re going to go out and protect the private property of other people.”

Carlson and Shapiro would likely say that these statements are not celebrating Rittenhouse’s actions but merely pointing out a causal chain of events: when protests burn down businesses, there “will” be a vigilante response, and thus you can’t “be shocked” that a 17 year old with a rifle decided to “protect private property.” All I’m saying is, this is what happens. 

Notice that these comments, while they present themselves as a mere neutral assessment of how one thing leads to another, actually try to shift responsibility onto the protesters for their own deaths. The shooter is treated as the inevitable consequence of the actions taken by the protesters. He’s essentially a force of nature.

What Carlson and Shapiro are saying, though, doesn’t actually reduce the shooter’s responsibility, any more than saying “if people violate Jim Crow laws, they get lynched” justifies lynching. The fact that in this country, there are many white people with guns who will kill without hesitation, is indeed a descriptive fact, but you can’t justify it by pointing out that it’s predictable. This is a common move in victim-blaming arguments: if the victimizer’s actions could have theoretically been foreseen, then the victimized person should have “known better.” Instead of placing the onus on the person doing harm to not do harm, the conduct of the person who “caused” the person to do that harm is scrutinized. (See the old “short skirt” excuse for rape and sexual assault.) 

When multiple parties are involved in a situation that produces a tragic outcome, which people’s actions you see as “inevitable” and which you see as a “deliberate personally responsible choice” often depend on your sympathies and values. That’s why conservative “personal responsibility” rhetoric is applied to the decisions of protesters, but it isn’t applied to the police who shoot people and thereby cause the protests to spring up, or to the 17-year-old who grabs a rifle and heads across state lines so he can “defend the private property” of people who have never asked him to defend that property. 

I’ve written at much greater length before about the way that protesters are singled out for blame, and why this is often a values-based decision presenting itself as scientifically neutral. We could say that it was “perfectly predictable” that protesters would burn down a corrections building after watching law enforcement shoot yet another unarmed Black man, especially given the ongoing deep frustration and economic immiseration that has been worsened by the government’s failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Personally, because I tend to be sympathetic to those who do not have very much and are not listened to by the political system, I share the viewpoint of Martin Luther King here, who viewed riots as the “language of the unheard.” He didn’t like violence, as I don’t either, but he also understood that it was wrong to focus excessively on the actions and choices of protesters rather than on the unjust situation against which they are protesting. 

That doesn’t mean that protesters have no agency. I think they make choices and that some of those choices are bad—see, for example, these protesters heckling random diners at D.C. restaurants. But it does mean that, even though Republicans will cackle with derision to hear it said, looting is not solely the fault of looters. To see why, think about Iraq: the United States destroyed the country’s infrastructure including all of its basic governing institutions, and then a wave of looting began. To say that this was the fault of the looters is absurd. It was clearly the fault of the criminals who launched an illegal invasion. By zeroing in on the actions of the most powerless people, and erasing from the picture the precipitating acts committed by far more powerful people, conservative “personal responsibility” rhetoric is actually “selective responsibility.” 

For the right, because they believe the status quo is good, oppressive conditions themselves are a neutral fact about the world, but those who challenge that condition are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Kyle Rittenhouse was merely a product of “society” while protesters’ choices are born of their agency and free will. We have to reject this framing: the fact that something is predictable doesn’t in any way justify it, and the people responsible for protests against police are the police, who could freely choose to commit less violence but have decided not to exercise their responsibilities responsibly. 

How Big Is a Billion, Really?

If $1 is half an inch, a billion dollars is the diameter of the Earth.

If $1 is a common garden ant (.5 cm), then a billion is 208,333 blue whales (24 meters) stacked end to end.

Let’s say you were immortal, and had always made a very comfortable salary equivalent to 100,000 a year (relative to inflation, local currency etc). Let’s say you never spent a dime of it, and it never earned any interest. To possess a billion dollars by the year 2020, you would have to have started earning that salary approximately 10,000 years ago, before the invention of currency and around the time of the extinction of the mammoths.

If $1 is 17 inches, a billion dollars is the circumference of Jupiter.

If you were strapped to a chair and forced to listen to all nine Beethoven symphonies, on loop, how many times would you have to hear all nine symphonies before a billion seconds had
passed? 47,214.35 times. You would be strapped to that chair
for 31.7 years.

Let’s say you wanted to fire a billion men into space. Loading them onto ships built to hold 1,000 men each, you would need 1 million ships. If you fired one ship of 1,000 men into the sun every day, it would take you 2,740 years before you finished. The population of men would likely replenish itself before you were finished. We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

With his current fortune, Jeff Bezos could buy 13 Lamborghinis every single day for a hundred years.

A Series of Tubes: Reclaiming the Physical Internet

If you’re like me, you are largely oblivious to the world around you. The knowledge of the entire world, along with a direct line to everyone you know and love, lives in your phone or your computer and you carry those around with you. Occasionally you plug them into some magical holes in your wall so they keep running. And of course you need wifi or cell service, which floats around in the air as long as you’re in the right sort of place with the right password. If you can grab it, then there you are. Plugged in. Connected, networked, internetworked, webbed to the wide world. The internet is in the air. It’s a cloud. We’re all connected, somehow, by technology or something. The magic lives in our computers and phones and in the apps they run.

There’s this anecdote in Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys: After most of its trading goes online, a hedge fund decides it might as well move from Manhattan to the midwest. Physical location has ceased to matter because business lives in cyberspace now. What a boon! What a time to save on rent. Of course, this turns out to be exactly wrong. As this firm is trying to save money by moving west, the high frequency traders on whom the book is focused are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get closer to the market, to put their computers as close as possible to the market computers. 

If you’re a hedge fund and you think about the internet like I usually do, you move to Oklahoma where the rent is cheap. If you think about the internet the way it actually is, you pay huge sums of money to put your computers inside New Jersey warehouses directly next to the market servers, and even more money to get them a few feet closer than your competitors’ computers. If you think about the internet the way it actually is, you spend untold millions to lay a few strands of glass, no thicker than human hairs, in the straightest possible line from Chicago to New Jersey. If you think about the internet the way it actually is, you worry about mountains and rivers and oceans, about electricity generation and signal interference. And you might also worry about ownership, control, power, and coordination. 

The internet, after all, is simply a communications network. Its job is to get information from one physical place to another physical place. It serves the same function as telephones, telegraphs, radios, smoke signals, and semaphore. It happens to operate through a complicated system of physical tubes. When you send a packet of information in the form of a letter, a federal government agency takes your letter and carries it across an intricate nationwide network of federally-, state-, and locally-owned and managed roads. When you send a packet of information in the form of bits, it is usually carried by a privately-owned internet service provider (or “ISP,” usually the local cable monopoly) along an intricate nationwide network of pathways owned by that company and a myriad of other private companies. It’s like if you could only send a letter with either UPS or FedEx (depending on where you live), and the letter had to travel on nothing but toll roads owned by a few dozen private corporations to get to anywhere from down the street to across the continent.

This presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that as more of our lives move online (whether in the normal course or all at once thanks to a global pandemic), we become ever more at the mercy of the private entities that control the internet. In normal times we have to use roads to get to work and to school, but at least we own the roads and exercise some control over them in the form of local government. We don’t own the internet. There are no city council meetings where we can go to complain about potholes and service interruptions, or about local tax raises and data rates. The way that our public institutions tend to get more people connected to the internet is to give private internet companies grants to build more wires. But those companies still own the wires, and at the end of the day they tend to do only what is most profitable.

The opportunity is to flip this dynamic. But we must go deeper than the calls for municipal internet service providers that were in heavy rotation around 2017. Municipal ISPs are good, but they are only local. Every city in the country could have its own locally owned and democratically controlled ISP and the internet would still be at the mercy of private profit. Someone still has to connect all those cities to each other. Someone still has to carry the bits from Los Angeles through Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Omaha to the servers in Council Bluffs. Owning local tubes is great, but what we need is public national internet infrastructure. To stay with the road analogy, owning local roads only gets you so far—we need democratic ownership and control over the highways and interstates, too. To see why, let’s talk a little more about what the internet is and where it came from.

The physical internet is a lot more like a road system than you might think. Information superhighway cliches aside, a functional internet requires physical pathways reaching every home and business in the country (and, increasingly, in the world). Like road systems, the physical internet is very expensive to build but confers massive benefits once it is built. Like roads, the physical pathways of the internet are neither very technologically complicated nor likely to change much over time. The ways of packaging and transmitting information are always improving, just like the ways of packaging and transmitting things along roads, but the glass wires that internet information travels through have been in place for decades and will not become overloaded for many more decades. 

When the telephone system was first being built, its challenges were far less technological than logistical. The technology was relatively simple: every household with a telephone had one pair of continuous copper wires connecting it to a local switching center. The phone itself was two devices—one near the mouth that converted the sound waves of a person’s voice to a corresponding electrical signal, and the other near the ear that converted an electrical signal back to a sound wave. Picking up the phone closed that wire’s circuit, i.e.  connected the wires together, creating an unbroken loop back to the switching center, where an operator was on the other end of the line. You told the operator which house you wanted to talk to, and they plugged your two wires into the two wires going from the switching center to that house, creating a continuous loop between you and the person you were calling. 

The logistics of this are mind-boggling. Every single home with a telephone had its own unique pair of wires. Those wires had to make it safely from the home to the switching center. Hundreds or thousands of wire pairs had to be color-coded, tagged, and bundled in such a way that they could be discerned, organized, and repaired at any point along miles and miles of physical distance, strung from pole to pole or running underground. The organization and maintenance of those wires was a monumental task for the telecom industry. And its most significant innovations came not in the form of new types of phones (though there were those), but in ways to cram together multiple conversations into the same sets of wires and to automate the task of the operators at the switching centers.

The internet feels more distant from this past than it actually is. To exist online is to send and receive information. To be sent and received, that information must take some physical form. It could be a patterned flow of electrons, a patterned electromagnetic wave, or a patterned series of flashes from one or multiple lasers. In any case, it has to exist somewhere. It has to be sent and then received, and it has to traverse physical distance between where it is sent and where it is received. For the vast majority of information and the vast majority of the distances it travels, it lives as signals in long strands of metal or glass. Unlike the early telephone system, many households and devices can share space on the same strands of metal or glass, but that metal and glass is the internet. 

The glass—optical fiber line—is a thing of wonder. Fiber has been in widespread use for decades and we haven’t come close to reaching its bandwidth potential. The thing about fiber is that it is simply a medium for signalling with light. And, because the signals themselves are merely light flashes, and because light travels so fast (though somewhat slower in glass than in space), the number of signals that are theoretically possible is very, very large. The only constraint on how much data can travel through fiber right now is how fast we can make a laser flash. As we continue to develop faster sending and receiving equipment, the data capacity of the very same fiber that has been in use for ten plus years will continue to expand.

Art by Ben Clarkson

The internet is not a metaphorical world wide web of connection, it is a physical world wide web of connection. If I want to video chat with Current Affairs editor Eli Massey using a service like Zoom while he’s in Cairo, my computer has to send waves to my router, which converts those waves to patterns of electrons in my home coaxial cable, which heads up to the utility pole behind my building and along utility poles or in trenches to the routers at my local Comcast switching center—sometimes the same switching center the old phone company used, but with the windows bricked in and full of servers and routers instead of human operators—and from there likely along fiber-optic strands of glass to a major regional switching center, maybe in downtown Los Angeles or Las Vegas, and onward still until it hits a switching center where Zoom has some co-located servers (maybe down the street, maybe across the country). Then Zoom sends that data on through more switching centers into an undersea cable (yes! my face converted to 0s and 1s encoded into laser flashes whizzing by beneath the sharks and flounders and whales and jellyfish), up under an Egyptian beach and through some Egyptian switching centers until it hits Eli’s router and gets beamed to his computer. Meanwhile his face is making the reverse journey.

Who is involved in this world wide web of strands of metal and glass carrying bits of ourselves over mountains and under oceans? Your ISP provides connection to your router, so they are the first custodians of everything you do online. But once your signal has passed through your router and into a cable that leaves your home, others are suddenly involved. That cable might be owned by your ISP, or it might be owned by a telephone company, or by your city or state. Your ISP might just be a tenant, leasing out some space (i.e. bandwidth) on someone else’s physical network. Whoever owns the cable, they probably do not own the poles it is strung along—those are often owned by the local telephone company or the local power company, and the owner of your cable probably has to lease space on the pole for your cable. (If your cable goes underground, the cable owner might be leasing space in an underground pipeline with a lot of cables, or the cable might simply lie in a tiny, permit-required trench in the dirt in city-, county-, or state-owned land.) Your ISP might own the whole switching center your data hits first, or it might rent space for its physical routers in someone else’s switching center, or it might rent capacity on someone else’s router in yet another party’s switching center. Then onto the next switching center, on yet more cables, with yet different owners and lessees using yet different poles and/or trenches.

Even if your ISP owns the physical cable in your area and is in full control of the signal and medium from your house to its switching center and beyond, it will have to hand your signal off to some other company at some point. The largest of the glass and metal strand owners are called Tier 1 networks. Roughly, this means they have enough physical reach to leverage free transfer agreements with the other Tier 1 networks. That is, if signals traveling on AT&T fiber need to pass through some CenturyLink fiber to get where they’re going, CenturyLink does not charge AT&T, and vice versa. They both own so much fiber (750,000 miles for CenturyLink, 410,000 for AT&T) that they consider each other “peers” and freely grant access to each others’ networks. Comcast, on the other hand, although the ISP for about 40% of all US internet subscriptions as of 2011, is not a Tier 1 network. It might have free peering agreements with most fiber owners, but there are still places on the internet (remember, physical places) where it can’t send data without paying someone to use their fiber. 

This setup presents a serious challenge for the idea of municipal internet promoted by many progressives. The desire to focus on local control, local infrastructure, and local accountability makes perfect sense when you think of your ISP as connecting you to a magical and disembodied internet. But the fact of the matter is that your city cannot provide you with the internet. It will need to link up with someone else at some point. When you try to access a website whose data live on a server in Council Bluffs, your signal needs to get to Iowa and back. Unless you live in Council Bluffs, your city network is not going to get you there.

So, without some larger democratic structure in place, municipal networks are somewhat at the mercy of the existing internet giants. Even if your local government manages to install a fiber optic connection in every home in town, it will still have to pay at some point down the line to access others’ networks and switching centers. It may have to pay its competitors like Comcast for access to those networks and switching centers, and Comcast will have little incentive to offer access on any reasonable terms to a government entity trying to cut into its profits. This is similar to the classic net neutrality problem, which is as follows: since Comcast is a private company with theoretically no obligations to the public, why can’t Comcast charge people extra to access high-demand websites like Netflix? What if Comcast decided it doesn’t like Current Affairs, and simply stopped providing access to our website at all? And since the companies that own the wires have largely acquired the companies that produce the content that travels along the wires (Comcast owns NBC, AT&T owns Time Warner, etc.), what if internet providers started making their own content much easier to access than the content of their competitors? You can see how this net neutrality problem could translate to physical networks: what’s to stop Comcast (or CenturyLink or AT&T) from charging entire cities more to send signals on the nation- and world-wide networks of wires, or not providing access at all to cities with the temerity to shoulder in on private ISPs’ market share? Own the wires, own the internet.

There are a few different ways we might confront this problem. One would be simply to build hundreds of thousands of miles of public cable and fiber, creating a large enough network to replace the current major players, or at least to achieve Tier 1 status and leverage a free data exchange. No public project has attempted this yet, but this has been the go-to move for tech companies seeking complete internet dominance and control. Google Fiber is an ongoing attempt to build a nationwide fiber optic network, to literally string Google-owned fiber alongside CenturyLink-owned fiber across the continent, thereby capturing a large chunk of the physical space internet for Google alongside its increasing control over the cyber space of the internet. If Google ever succeeds with this project, traffic via Gmail or Youtube could travel from Google’s servers to your computer without ever passing out of Google’s control.

Google isn’t alone in this ambition. Many of the big tech companies that dominate the cyber space of the internet have been trying to find ways to take over its physical space as well. Beyond the prospect of domestic control and profit, expanding internet access to offline parts of the world carries the potential for untold profits. Google had a short-lived project called Loon that attempted to float wireless routers on massive balloons in the high atmosphere to enable connection in remote areas without the infrastructure for physical cables. Facebook attempted a similar project using a giant solar-powered plane, essentially a flying cell tower. Eventually these two projects learned the same lessons as Motorola’s Iridium satellite network and AT&T’s microwave relay tower project: it’s very hard to transmit signals quickly, cheaply, and reliably through the air. Long strands of glass are the way to go.

That’s not to say the air isn’t still in play. Both Tesla and Amazon are in the process of attempting to build networks of hundreds or thousands of low-orbit satellites to replace the strands of metal and glass on the Earth’s surface. The traditional problem with satellite internet is that you have to be able to send and receive signals from a satellite, meaning it has to be somewhere in the sky above you, and not on the other side of the earth. There are only two ways to make sure there is always a satellite above you. First, you could put the satellite in geostationary orbit, meaning it stays above the same spot on the surface of the Earth at all times. The problem with this strategy is that to maintain geostationary orbit, satellites have to be very high—approximately 22,000 miles above sea level. That is far enough away that, even travelling at the speed of light, there is a noticeable lag for data to reach the satellite and then get back down to its destination on the ground. The other way to make satellites work is to have a lot of them in lower orbits. In lower orbits the satellites move much faster, so no single satellite will be over the same spot for very long. But if you have enough of them, you could get a signal to the closest one and have it relay the signal between a few more before beaming it down to its destination. Up until now, the main challenge for creating such a system has been the expense. Launching satellites, until recently, has been very expensive. You have to build a whole rocket for each launch. But with the Tesla/SpaceX creation of reusable rockets, building a network of a few thousand low-orbit satellites has become more feasible. Elon Musk may have cheered the successful rocket reentry for its potential in supplying the space station, but he was probably thinking instead about owning the entire internet.

Assuming that Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos will not encase the world in more than 10,000 satellites to own the internet, and, as nearly all the experts seem to think, that ground fiber is still the way to go, what can we do to coordinate democratic municipal ISPs? How can we free them from the grip of giant national fiber owners? Could we accomplish what Google is attempting, but public? Could we lay a democratically controlled and accountable public physical internet alongside the private physical internet currently connecting most homes on the continent?

It would be tough, but there are some regional examples worth examining. In Utah, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA, is a consortium of sixteen cities working to build a fiber optic network that would reach every home and business across a significant swathe of the state. UTOPIA is a public enterprise, funded through government bonds, that is directly competing with the private owners of the physical internet. It makes use of peering agreements with other public and academic networks, thereby expanding its fee-free reach to internet locations around the country. But that reach is still very limited. UTOPIA owns the fiber in its area, but leases fiber to get to the major data centers outside its immediate area, data centers owned by yet more parties. And though UTOPIA peers with other publicly-minded networks, those networks themselves must pay to reach the privately-controlled bits of the internet. Maybe most interestingly, UTOPIA itself is not an ISP. That is, it provides people with the glass strands, but doesn’t code and carry their internet traffic along those strands. It doesn’t run the laser flashes that constitute the signals. Rather, approved private ISPs operate on UTOPIA’s physical network. UTOPIA calls itself an “open source” model, meaning that its physical network is available for use by any qualifying ISP, public or private.

The idea of UTOPIA is encouraging. That a public agency can viably fundraise and execute construction of a door-to-door fiber optic network, even if only regionally, is a small proof of concept. It could conceivably serve as a model for a national UTOPIA, a publicly-funded national network of fiber connecting local, regional, and state systems across the country. But UTOPIA’s history calls for some caution. The reason UTOPIA is not an ISP is that public entities in Utah are not allowed to be ISPs. And the reason they’re not allowed to be ISPs is that, after public internet efforts including UTOPIA initially got off the ground in Utah, the internet giants descended with near unlimited resources to fund lawsuits and lobbying efforts. They succeeded in effectively outlawing public internet service providers in Utah with legislation thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (yes, ALEC, the conservative legislative advocacy group responsible for a large percentage of the most private-profit-driven, scourge-of-the-left state laws across the country). 

The mere possibility of a public option for the internet in Utah led to a massive legal and lobbying effort that ended with a law banning public ISPs. The public broadband advocacy organization Community Networks offers an interactive map showing the country’s public internet networks, and notes that at least eighteen states have put up barriers to public internet. The millions of dollars spent by the likes of Comcast and AT&T to block net neutrality will be a drop in the bucket compared to the effort they will launch at every level of government to prevent any kind of nationwide network to shift power and leverage to local ISPs.

If we can’t build our own public, national, physical internet, is there a way we can force the current owners of the internet to act in the public’s interest? Can they be prevented from hamstringing local internet networks? This sort of move would have historical precedent. The railroads were notoriously built with public money for private profit, often involving sweetheart deals with associated or co-owned industries at the expense of everyone else. Much like Comcast carrying its own content for free but charging others, railroads would provide cheap or free transport to their subsidiaries but would charge others exorbitantly. Once the scandals reached a fever pitch in the 1880s, Congress designated the railroads as “common carriers,” meaning that, given their status as essential services, they were legally required to offer their services on a fair and equitable basis, and were to be closely scrutinized by regulators to ensure that was the case.

Congress did the same to the telecom industry in 1934. Rather than breaking up AT&T’s monopoly, or nationalizing the phone lines, Congress enacted a law to force AT&T to carry telephone transmissions from all customers on a fair and equal basis. Congress enacted a smaller but similar rule in the 1970s at the behest of the cable industry to restrict AT&T’s control over telephone poles. AT&T saw cable as a potential competitor both in terms of telecommunications and for its own plans to offer video delivery in the future. It also saw that the cable companies would have to spend a ton of money to run networks of wires if they couldn’t use the existing poles. So the cable companies found themselves being charged exorbitantly to hang cables on poles. The Pole Attachment Act directed the FCC to determine reasonable rates for pole owners to charge and thus set prices for pole leases.

The internet seems a natural choice for “common carrier” status. But, through decades of regulatory capture, lawsuits, and savvy lobbying, internet providers—both ISPs and large networks—have evaded designation as common carriers and maintained an almost wholly deregulated existence. Is now a moment for revisiting this situation? Nearly the entire American economy is wholly dependent on the internet right now. Those of us who are lucky enough to be working are doing so online. Public schools are holding Zoom classes and public officials are suggesting that children locked out of the internet at home (whether due to geography or poverty) go attend class in McDonald’s parking lots. The canard that broadband internet access is a luxury rather than a necessity, although long false, is growing more obviously ludicrous every day. These wires are our highways now. They are the paths we travel to get to work and school all day every day. Surely they are common carriers. 

Of course, the viability of this argument looks no better today than it did during the net neutrality fight in 2017. The White House, Congress, and the FCC are aligned in the strongest possible opposition to any internet regulation. And at the point we have the power to impose common carrier status, we should use that power to do better.

It would seem ridiculous to countenance a completely privatized system of roads and highways. Even with common carrier rules in place, imagine having to choose and pay for the use of various paths depending on where you’re going, what you’re carrying, what your means of transit are, etc. And imagine having to erect an entire bureaucracy to monitor the maintenance and conduct of the private companies in charge of the roads and highways. Maybe there are some libertarian readers salivating at this possibility, but I doubt it will appeal to most.

Is there a good reason to treat the internet differently? Sure, we built it in a different way, but that was due more to historical accident than any logical reason. Roads have always been recognized as essential for commerce, and their rights of way set aside for public use. The advent and prominence of cars came while the depredations of the privatized railroad system were still fresh, and federal and state governments were all too willing during the Great Depression and in the glut after World War Two to make massive public investments in direct road building (even while it would only subsidize private ownership of telephone lines). Politicians looking for rural support pushed through the USPS Rural Free Delivery program starting in the 1890s, which spurred the building of public postal roads reaching nearly every home in the country, at great public expense but to immeasurable long term benefit, so that people could get their mail delivered to their doors.

One potential rationale for public roads but private telecom is that the telecom system is more susceptible to innovation, and can benefit more from private competition. This hasn’t borne out for a whole host of reasons. AT&T operated as a government-sanctioned “natural monopoly” for decades, and after being forcefully broken up in the 1980s has consolidated nearly all of its former holdings back into itself. And, in fact, there hasn’t been that much innovation in telecom or internet hardware in the recent past. Fiber has been in wide use for decades and we haven’t come close to reaching its potential for bandwidth. There might be innovation to be had in the sending and transmitting equipment, which might be a colorable argument for private ISPs on a public fiber backbone, similar to the UTOPIA model. But even this might concede too much. As Vanessa A. Bee has written in Current Affairs and In These Times, there is little evidence that market competition is or has ever been necessary for technological innovation. The internet itself, after all, is a creation of public institutions.

What am I suggesting? Nationalize the wires. Rather than attempting to erect a whole new set of fibers to run alongside the existing fibers as a “public option” of sorts, we need to seize our soonest opportunity to take public ownership over the nationwide network of cables that is destined to continue serving as essential public infrastructure for the foreseeable future. And just as the federal government provided grants to improve and expand public infrastructure during the New Deal and post-war period, we need to provide funds for local and regional democratically accountable ISPs. This need not involve dismantling the existing ISPs. But a handful of private companies should not own the physical wires, and the means of access to those wires, and the content that flows along them all at once. 

(A note on privacy and security: A sane person may balk at the idea of government owning and controlling the internet. “The internet should be a radically democratic and subversive technology. They can already see too much. Do we really want to hand Stephen Miller and Palantir the skeleton key to every bit that travels the wires?” First, don’t kid yourself, the NSA is already in the private switching centers. Second, there is nothing more inherently trustworthy about Bank of America, Facebook, Google, AT&T, and Comcast than the government. But this is a legitimate concern. It is, however, a concern that can be dealt with using the right encryption protocols. Just in the past five years huge swaths of the internet have moved from HTTP to HTTPS, and end-to-end encryption has gone from the stuff of paranoid conspiracy theorists to an expected feature in communication apps. No security is perfect, and government-owned wires could still carry a risk of increased government surveillance, but Peter Thiel and Palantir will end up with your data as things stand now, and they will happily sell it to any government that will pay.) 

The history of nationalizing resources and industries in the United States is complicated. The official story is often that “we don’t do that.” But, of course, we do do that. We nationalized the paper currency industry with the creation of the Federal Reserve. We attempted to nationalize steel to break a strike in 1952. We nationalized passenger railroads in the 1970s. We nationalized most of the mortgage market in 2008 when the Department of Treasury took conservatorship over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We also nationalized General Motors Acceptance Corporation in 2008-09, rebranded it as Ally Financial, and sold it back to private owners in pieces up until 2014. The common thread among these precedents is that we stepped in with public money when things were going very badly in order to subsidize private owners. Then, when things improved, we handed the assets back over so they could continue generating private profits.

These past examples are helpful precedents but they have things backwards. We should not have waited for a complete collapse of the banking system to nationalize paper currency. We should not have waited for a collapse in the housing market to take democratic control over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. So long as we use public money only to bail out private industry, we will forever be responding to suffering rather than preventing it. How many public school children are we going to send to the McDonald’s parking lot before we understand that internet access is a public good? In a better world, universal public internet access would be a political tool even more effective than the Rural Free Delivery Program. Politicians of all stripes and in all levels of government would see the golden opportunity presented by record dissatisfaction with private ISPs like Comcast, and would jump at the chance to institute a popular, useful program that would expand the economy and provide public works jobs. A champion of community internet would emerge, driving federal grants for municipal ISPs alongside federal and state programs to buy, build, or co-opt long distance transmission lines and switching centers.

If we have a strong understanding of what it means for something to be a public good, we will see the need to reach beyond defending those we already have—public education, the mail, the roads—and toward the public goods currently in private hands. The wires are a public good, necessary for education and governance and commerce. Whoever controls the physical internet controls a great deal of our lives, and our lives should be up to us. Freedom, as the saying goes, is participation in power. As the power of the internet grows, so must our participation grow. Isn’t that exactly what democracy is for? 

For further reading on the physical internet and its ownership and control, check out the following books:

  1. Infrastructure by Brian Hayes (2014 edition)
  2. Captive Audience by Susan Crawford
  3. Bit Tyrants by Rob Larson
  4. Mother Earth Mother Board by Neal Stephenson
  5. The Master Switch by Tim Wu
  6. Tubes by Andrew Blum

The Dead World of Blippi

I’ve a clock that won’t work and an old telephone
A broken umbrella, a rusty trombone
But I am delighted to call them my own
I love them because they’re TRASH! 
Oscar the Grouch, “I Love Trash,” Sesame Street (1969) 

They drive really fast though the town
And oh my goodness their sirens are so loud
Can’t you see their red and blue lights 
Letting everybody know to let them by
Police cars
Police cars
Police cars
— Blippi, “Police Car Song” (2016)

I hated Blippi the first moment I saw him, and I know I am not the only one. The “educational” children’s YouTube host has inspired reddit threads like “Does Anyone Else Have An Irrational Hatred of Blippi?” and blog posts like “Are You There, Blippi, It’s Me, I Hate You.” I initially encountered him when my colleague Lyta Gold awarded him one of the 2019 Current Affairs “Griftie” Awards—Blippi had made parents angry by sending an actor touring the country pretending to be the “real Blippi.” (Discerning children can tell the difference.) Before interviewing Lyta about her article, I watched some Blippi videos to understand him for myself. This was a mistake, because not only did I hate Blippi, I also couldn’t get him out of my head. This was not just because he was annoying, which he is. No, something about him was also disturbing. He felt wrong, off-kilter, like something had gone haywire in the culture. And I was fairly sure it had something to do with Donald Trump, though I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. 

I believe I have figured it out: Blippi is from Death World.

Let me explain.

First, for those fortunate enough to have escaped him up to this point in their lives: Blippi is a character played by Air Force veteran Stevin John in dozens of YouTube videos targeted at toddlers. Blippi’s signature colors are blue and orange, and he wears a bowtie, suspenders, big goofy glasses, and a puffy cap. He is a clear derivative of Pee Wee Herman, though his “Hey Kids!” forced goofiness actually reminds me more of “Uncle Nutzy,” the failed children’s TV character played by Weird Al Yankovic in 1989’s UHF. 

Blippi, however, is not a failed children’s character but an astonishingly successful one. He has racked up billions of views. calls him the “millennial answer to Mr. Rogers,” an “icon in the kiddie sphere” who anyone with a toddler has probably heard of. The Daily Mail calls him the “self-made viral superstar [who] is a hero among two to six-year-olds.” 

Blippi teaches children colors and counting, he tells them what an elephant is, he points out the parts of cars, boats, planes, and trucks, he shows them how to operate a lemonade stand, he tosses things in a pool to see if they sink or float, and he visits places like playgrounds and apple orchards and chocolate factories. It is all clean, colorful, and perfectly wholesome.  

It’s so innocuous, in fact, that plenty of people—especially parents whose children are easily distracted by Blippi taking them on a digital trip to the zoo—can’t see anything wrong with him. Some responders to the “I hate Blippi” reddit post pushed back, noting that Blippi has taught their kids to identify different colors, as well as the parts of backhoes and garbage trucks:

  • “I don’t hate him at all. My daughter only watches Blippi and has learned so much from his videos… Considering what else is out there, I’m happy to have his high pitched voice around the house!”
  • “Dude is obnoxious, but it’s really the best of the YouTube kids stuff.”

Even the post by the person who supposedly hates Blippi is fairly half-hearted, and she ultimately concedes that Blippi is probably fine:

“I’ve watched every single video my child has watched and so far I can’t find a single real complaint. … The problem is that there is actually no real problem here. … His videos are educational, my kid loves them, they’re well done and safe to watch. So whyyyy do I still have such mixed feelings about him? I don’t know man.”

Oh, but there is a real problem here. To see what it is, we need to go below the surface a bit, and think about what is in Blippi videos, and more importantly, what isn’t in them.

After watching an unhealthy amount of Blippi content—I am fascinated by children’s entertainment, since it has such an outsized impact on shaping people’s developing understandings of the world—I made a few observations. First, the world of Blippi is oddly lonely. Children themselves appear only occasionally, even though Blippi goes to places like parks, play places, and children’s museums. For instance, in one video Blippi visits the Kinderland Indoor Playground, which is located in a Las Vegas strip mall. Blippi’s visit occurs at night, and he is alone except for a silent employee at the admission desk. The “playground” consists of a single room full of cheap plastic toys, and to me the beige carpet and fluorescent lights make it look depressing—though parents on Yelp reliably praise it as a good place to distract a child. Blippi wanders through perfunctorily, playing with each of the toys—making a vroom sound with the police car, climbing into a little house and saying “I’m in a little house!”; jumping in the ball pit, etc. But the whole thing feels desolate—watching it, I kept getting the feeling that it takes place in a world where every other child has died in some apocalyptic disaster, and the man-child Blippi has been left to wander the ghostly playgrounds of the world, convincing himself he’s capable of having fun without anyone else around.

Blippi’s world—the Blippiverse, if you will—is dead and sterile. First, it’s astonishing how many of the videos are about machines. There are videos about tractors, monster trucks, helicopters, garbage trucks, boats, trains, fire trucks, airplanes, wheel loaders, backhoes, buses, ice cream trucks, bulldozers, bucket trucks, excavators, lawn mowers, motorcycles, jet skis, snow groomers, zambonis, and police cars. Importantly, they are mostly focused on the machines themselves and not the people who build and operate them. Now, when I was a kid I was obsessed with cars myself, but by the time Blippi got to videos about private jets and the LAPD helicopter (a second helicopter video), something felt amiss. At one point, Blippi goes all the way to India and does not introduce his viewers to a single Indian person, instead focusing on how nifty rickshaws are

The vehicle obsession looks weirder when we realize that there isn’t a single Blippi video about, say, trees or lakes or waterfalls. Blippi takes place in an artificial world, where nature has been subdued and transformed. Blippi’s video about apples is not pitched as a visit to an apple orchard, but an “apple factory,” much like his visit to the raspberry factory. Even when Blippi talks about animals, they are always on farms or in zoos, and he even discusses them as if they are machines. When Blippi introduces kids to elephants, all we learn is how much they weigh—as much as eight cars!—and how their trunk functions and that they can’t jump; an elephant is just another giant contraption like a wheel loader. We do not learn anything about elephants’ emotions or social lives, how an elephant mom treats her elephant babies, or how elephants play, or how they cooperate or compete. We certainly do not learn that thanks to human beings massacring them, the entire number of Asian elephants in the world is about half the size of the number of people who live in Beaverton, Oregon

There is a certain lifelessness in Blippi’s videos. Nature is non-present, having been ground up to make machines and plastic toys. There are a few sad animals left in aquariums and zoos for us to go look at and measure and weigh. The world is made of commodities, not people or wild animals, and not only does Blippi not seem very interested in playing with or talking to children, but the people who make all the stuff that Blippi is interested in are all but invisible. In the “apple factory” episode, we see a worker picking apples and putting them in buckets, but Blippi doesn’t think to talk to the man about his life and work. Blippi is more interested in the buckets, and the truck they go on. Karl Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism—relationships between people being seen as relationships between things—is highly useful in understanding how the world looks through Blippi’s eyes.

In fact, I think of Marx continuously when I’m watching Blippi videos, because Marx was especially interested in the difference between the world of appearances and the world of essences—how capitalism appears at first glance, versus what is actually going on under the hood to create that appearance. Blippi’s approach to teaching kids about the world is incredibly superficial: his idea of an “educational science experiment” is to toss different objects into the pool and see if they sink or float. He doesn’t explain what makes them sink or float, meaning that children aren’t coming away with any idea of why things are as they are. There is something incredibly dumb about these “educational” videos; when Blippi describes a strawberry, he says it is comprised of two parts: a “red area” and a “green area.” But what are those areas? And why are they there? What makes a strawberry red? What are the seeds for? What are the leaves for? Why does it exist? These are the questions that kids have, and they’re interesting questions that have actual answers, but Blippi’s world is one in which things simply are, and all we can do is count them and say what color they are.

I can’t help but feel, watching these videos, that Blippi is in many ways the direct opposite of Mr. Rogers, because Blippi treats kids as if they are stupid and unimaginative. An impressive thing about children is that when they go to play in a little house, they do not simply say, as Blippi does, “I’m in a house! Tee hee! Hello!” They say things like “The house is for aliens, I am an alien, you are a dog, so you can’t come.” Kids are weird, and while Blippi performs a kind of contrived weirdness, giggling and writhing and going “WHOAH!” he isn’t a surrealist the way real children (and Pee Wee Herman) are. Everything in the Blippiverse is what it is. The garbage truck still just collects the garbage, even when Blippi is supposedly playing rather than teaching. It doesn’t eat unicorns, or spit out pasta, or whatever imaginative nonsense an actual child would think of. 

The oppressive literalness of Blippi offends the imagination, which is a sacred and precious thing. Consider this excerpt of Blippi-speak, from a scene about a banana

“Who-ho-hoah, weeee! Did you see I just went down the blue slide? Oh! What’s this? Look! It’s a yellow banana. I love bananas. You know who else loves bananas? Monkeys. Would you act like a monkey with me? Oo ooh, ah ah.” 

Now, again, I think it may be difficult at first to notice what the problem is. Blippi is being goofy. Kids are learning colors. They see what a banana is. What’s the problem? But then I went back to an old 1960s episode of Sesame Street, and the difference in sophistication was immediately obvious. The Sesame Street episode also happens to contain a “banana identification” exercise, but it works slightly differently. At the start of the show, Gordon (if it’s been a while since you’ve seen Sesame Street, Gordon is a regularly-occurring adult human character) shows up with an actual child (Sally), and says they’re having a treasure hunt for things that begin with the letter “B.” Gordon says that Sally has found a ball, and he has a box. 

“I’ve got a box, that’s one B for me, right?” 

“Wrong,” Sally replies. It’s a blue box, meaning it’s two Bs. We then see that Mr. Hooper, the cranky corner-store owner, is also searching for B items, and thinks he hasn’t found any, even though he has a banana in his hand the whole time. Mr. Hooper runs into Big Bird, and realizes that “Big Bird” begins with a B, and is the perfect item to help him win the treasure hunt. But Big Bird is offended, and replies: 

“Never refer to me as an item. I’m a bird!” 

Mr. Hooper has to apologize for objectifying Big Bird, and Big Bird points out that Mr. Hooper’s banana begins with a B. Mr. Hooper is thrilled, and says he “won’t be needing” Big Bird after all. Big Bird is crestfallen. 

“But I thought you needed me.” 

“Well, you see, I just discovered the banana.” 

“Oh, I see. [I’m] ‘wonderful.’ But not as wonderful as a bananaMarvelous, beautiful, wonderful, but not as important as a banana. [begins to cry]

Mr. Hooper, backtracking, tells Big Bird he needs him after all. 

“You mean I’m better than a banana?” replies Big Bird.

“You’re BIGGER than a banana.”

“But I thought you needed me.”

I’m relaying this in detail because I want to note a few things that Sesame Street does in order to actually make children think. First, they provide two opportunities for the child-viewer to notice something that the on-screen character doesn’t: Gordon doesn’t notice that his box is blue as well as a box, and Mr. Hooper does not notice he has a B-thing in his hand. Kids are given an opportunity to outsmart adults (you can imagine them yelling at the screen “THE BANANA!”) The “blue box” being a “double B” encourages kids to look for things that they may have missed at first, honing their ability to observe beyond their initial perceptions.

But look, too, at how the scene is also funny and emotional and has wordplay. Sesame Street does not just hold up a banana and say “Look, a yellow banana.” Sure, the banana is identified, and we learn what letter it begins with, but we also have a scene in which Mr. Hooper hurts Big Bird’s feelings by caring so much about the treasure hunt that he thinks of his friend as an “item” and tries to use him as a means to an end. We feel bad for Big Bird as he realizes that when Mr. Hooper was calling him wonderful, he was just trying to win the contest, because apparently Big Bird isn’t as wonderful as a banana. Mr. Hooper learns something here in this 60-second scene, and it’s not just about whether a banana begins with a B, but it’s also about what matters in life, and making amends. 

It still ends with a silly joke, though, one I love: “You mean I’m better than a banana?”/“You’re bigger than a banana.” What does that mean? Is bigger better? This is just playing around with B-words, and it’s fun. 

If you watch this entire Sesame Street episode closely, you’ll be impressed with how much thought has been put into it. We see a stream-of-consciousness sequence in which children do word-association with the letter B as they paint B-things on a sheet of glass. To the tune of “Three Blind Mice,” kids sing a round about bubblegum as they blow bubbles that pop on their faces:

B is a bubble in bubblegum
And b is your brother who brought you some
And b is better than any letter
For bubblegum

The “viewer seeing something the characters don’t” trick occurs over and over, from clowns Buddy and Jim trying and failing to make a peanut butter sandwich to Mr. Hooper building things that have one small thing missing to Ernie forgetting what an X looks like even as he draws many Xs for different reasons. 60s Sesame Street is not high-budget stuff (boom mikes are often dropping into frame) but it’s immensely creative: Ernie takes an eraser and erases Cookie Monster, a psychedelic animated numbers-song features the four-of-diamonds turning into four goldfish, a Black boy named Mark uses a pair of “magic glasses” to turn noises into sights, the Muppets sing “5 Is Such A Pretty Number,” there are relaxing montages of gorgeous flowers, Ernie tries to fit balls into boxes, everyone learns how to sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” Gordon and little boy Steven take a cross-country trip by bus and train while sitting on their stoop—using only their imaginations and some hats!—and a group of kids meet and get to know an adorable baby lamb. This is all in a single episode of the very first season! 

Look, Sesame Street is a classic, and I’m not saying Blippi has to be as good as the greatest children’s show of all time. But since many parents say the supposedly innocuous Blippi is among the “best of the YouTube kids’ stuff,” I want to pinpoint exactly what’s missing and why he’s producing such inferior, brain-rotting content. The Sesame Street team didn’t have more money—what they had was more imagination and more dedication to the craft of educational television. They put a lot of work into the writing, instead of just showing up at a playground and running around it giggling and saying “This ball is BLUE!” 

One of the most unsettling voids in the Blippi videos is the emotional one. Perhaps the first thing I noticed about Blippi was how obviously insincere he was. Much like Weird Al as Uncle Nutzy, Stevin John’s wackiness feels contrived and fake. He seems like the prototypical example of the kids’ show host who, the moment the camera stops rolling, grabs a cigarette, lapses into a foul-mouthed rasp, and goes “that ought to hold the little bastards.” I don’t know if he actually does that, but he seems like he does it. I don’t feel like I have any idea what Stevin John is actually like, because Blippi is so obviously a put-on.

Now, Pee Wee Herman was like that, somewhat, but Mr. Rogers certainly wasn’t, and nor was Gordon or the rest of the Sesame Street cast. Heck, even Barney the Dinosaur was made to seem earnest, and said words like “I love you” with sincerity and conviction. Fred Rogers understood that even very young children are intelligent and emotional creatures and that their lives can be difficult and complicated. Rogers dealt with things like: how to solve problems, how to get through hard times, what to do when someone you know is sick. Rogers’ song “What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?” is about the way that when you’re a child, it can be difficult to know what to do with your feelings of frustration and rage. A Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood episode can even touch on divorce and death. Even though it’s for elementary schoolers! At the heart of it are people, not objects. Look at the classic, tear-jerking scene in which Mr. Rogers and wheelchair-bound quadriplegic Jeff Erlanger sing “It’s You I Like.” This is purely about two people getting to know each other, and enjoying a special moment together. It’s not highly-produced; it’s just moving and sweet and human. And it’s a lesson in empathy: a non-disabled child who watches and gets to know Jeff will, the hope is, be somewhat less likely to grow up as a bully. Plus, as is usual with Mr. Rogers, we are encouraged to express our feelings sincerely and openly, and everyone is taught to feel proud of the qualities that make them special.

There is no feeling whatsoever in Blippi. There is just sugar-high manic bouncing around. These videos are supposedly “educational,” but they don’t teach you anything about being a curious person, or being kind, or thinking about things in new and unexpected ways. I don’t think it’s irrelevant that Stevin John is a military man: before I even knew this fact, I thought the Blippi videos seemed like good training for a Spartan society of idiot-warriors, who can count and pick out colors but have no depth of thought or emotion. 

In fact, the more I watch Blippi (and boy, have I watched Blippi), the more horrified I am by how thin and dull the Blippiverse is. Blippi does not seem to read books. He does not play make-believe, except to pretend he is doing the thing that the toy or playground object has been built for him to do with it. “Science” means dropping a piece of fruit in the pool and seeing if it floats. The interesting thing about an elephant is that it’s heavy. What about music? Art? History? Theater? The natural world? The wonders of outer space? Mr. Rogers had episodes about grandparents, about not wasting things, about being brave at the emergency room. On any given week he might introduce you to Yo-Yo Ma or Eric Carle of Very Hungry Caterpillar fame. Sesame Street met all the people in your neighborhood and talked about what they do and why it matters, rather than focusing on the trucks they drive. 

What about inventing things? Writing songs? Oh God, the songs on Blippi are particularly low-effort. They all seem to come from the “default rock beat” setting on a synthesizer, are almost all about vehicles, and have the most mindless lyrics imaginable. From the Excavator Song:

I’m an excavator
I’m an excavator
Hey dirt see you later
I’m an excavator

From the Monster Truck Song

Monster trucks are big
Monster trucks are loud
Monster trucks jump high in the sky
And they make such a monster sound

Notice that nobody has even attempted to rhyme anything: 

Monster trucks have great big tires
That crush the cars they land on
Monster trucks can jump so high
I wonder if they can jump over the moon

I think it’s easy to forgive Blippi for this stuff because it’s “just for kids.” I’m disinclined to do this myself, because I think that reflects an assumption that “it’s okay to give children garbage, because they’re dumb.” I don’t think kids are dumb, and I think depriving them of intelligent things is a crime against their rich and spongy minds. Even a silly song from Sesame Street like “Rubber Duckie” has some actual pathos to it, some clever rhymes, and a memorable tune: 

Rubber ducky, joy of joys
When I squeeze you, you make noise *quack quack*
Rubber duckie you’re my very best friend it’s true

Oh, every day when I make my way to the tubbie
I find a little fellow who’s cute and yellow and chubby

Rubber ducky you’re so fine
And I’m so lucky that you’re mine
Rubber duckie I’m awfully fond of you

  Ernie’s relationship with Rubber Duckie is sweet, and the musical style recalls 1920s jazz with its “vo-vo-vo-de-oh.” Sesame Street drew on the richness of American musical culture, showcasing blues, country, folk, and Motown—remember James Taylor and Howard Johnson’s charming “Jellyman Kelly,” Smokey Robinson’s goofy rendition of “U Really Got A Hold On Me,” or Johnny Cash’s serenade to Oscar the Grouch, “Nasty Dan”? 

I am not saying Blippi has to get the ghost of Cab Calloway to cameo on his show to sing a nursery rhyme, but I don’t think John and his writers actually have any awareness of the depth and variety of American and world culture. Just because you’re writing a show for four-year-olds doesn’t mean the only thing you can tell them about India is that they have rickshaws there. Blippi is extremely white, which I mean in a literal sense—look at the races of the characters in his happy little song about cops—but also in his worldview, which shows itself in everything from his obliviousness to the inner lives of Indians to the giddy exuberance with which he shows us around a police cruiser. 

In fact, I cannot help but think of Donald Trump when I see Blippi. Trump, too, is a person who is totally uninterested in books, art, and music. (Does Trump even have a favorite band? Has he ever listened to music for pleasure?) Trump doesn’t give a shit about nature—the Trump family’s approach to revamping the White House Rose Garden, as we found out, is ripping out the trees and draining it of color. Trump is impressed by things being big and impressive, and just about the only facts he knows about the world is what color things are and how much they cost. I do not think it is snobbery to say that Trump is dumb, but it’s important to note what’s dumb about him: the problem is not that he doesn’t go to the opera, it’s that he is totally uninterested in other people or in anything beyond the most boring superficial material objects in front of his nose. 

Blippi takes kids on a long tour of a private jet but doesn’t tell them anything about values or encourage them to think for themselves. In this, he is very like Trump, and the long-term impacts of Blippi on the minds of children, as of Trump on our entire culture, will be profound. Children raised solely on Blippi, and on other videos like his, will be deeply fucked up. They will not be given access to the treasures of human imagination: stories, poems, songs. They won’t care about the absolutely incredible natural world around us. They won’t see all of the extraordinary sights that exist beyond the fluorescent lights of Las Vegas strip mall play places. 

Donald Trump’s brand of American capitalism troubles me so much in part because it’s so ignorant of what it destroys. It doesn’t care about the beautiful beloved places it demolishes to put up luxury condos, or the diverse species and cultures it wipes out in the pursuit of “efficiency.” Having no knowledge of what is in a library or a university, it doesn’t care what it shuts down or sells off. Having no appreciation for what wild animals and plants are like or why they matter, it obliterates them. Having only the faintest awareness that the Global South exists and contains actual human beings, it thinks nothing of imposing catastrophic climate change on billions of people in other countries. Taking the world of surface appearances as its reality, it destroys life and creates a soulless dystopia of cops and commodities, without any awareness that it is doing so. A whole country of Trumps would create what I think of as “Death World,” where everything heartfelt and fragile and lovely is crushed in the pursuit of raw material gain for its own sake. 

“There’s so many things to know and wonder about in this world. And there’s so many people who want to show and tell you all they can. People who want to help you to learn and to be brave and strong and interesting and loving. That’s the best part of living—loving. And I love being with you.” — Mr. Rogers

It’s easy to criticize, and there are millions of parents and children who like Blippi, so let me say something positive about him and then give constructive advice for what good educational videos could be like. Blippi is not wholly valueless. He’s quite good at identifying the different parts of heavy industrial machinery, and if Blippi were, say, the Big Machines guy on a children’s show that mostly focused on the other 99 percent of the world, I would have no objection to him at all except that he seems phony. Unfortunately, Blippi’s “educational” show is missing all of the elements that make children actually think and help them grow into creative and emotionally sophisticated people.

So here are a few things children’s shows need. First, feelings. We are not just hyperactive playful goofballs, even when we’re young. We are emotional. We love, we hate, we get mad and sad and confused. From a very young age, kids’ shows need to be helping us to understand those feelings and figure out what to do about them. They need to be teaching us that we’re not alone and that the things that are scary and bewildering about our world are scary and bewildering to others, too. It’s okay to talk about pain, even with very young kids, because they aren’t actually “innocents.” They do not live in a world of Fisher-Price toys and candy. They live in the real world and, while they like to have fun, they see many of the same dark things we do, and need comfort and explanations. Mr. Rogers understood this, and he did not care who made fun of him when he talked about the importance of love. Love is important, and if you think that’s corny or cringe, you can fuck right off. (I am describing Mr. Rogers’ attitude, not directly quoting him.) 

Second, diversity. Sesame Street was innovative partly because it showed real kids, Black, white, and Hispanic, in a working-class neighborhood. I don’t just mean having kids of different colors, though. I mean a diversity of perspectives and cultures. Kids need to learn what it’s like to be each other, how their lives differ from those of other people, so that they grow up to be compassionate and humane. Speak and sing in many languages. Show them the whole world and everyone in it. Introduce them to other kids, not just some insincere know-nothing man-child.

Third, work. Sometimes, as with the apple-picker, Blippi simply ignores the workers. Other times, he has brief conversations in which they describe how the factory operates. But kids need to learn that workers are people. We should see their lives, not just their interactions with their machinery. Otherwise, they’re taught to see real live human beings as mere appendages to a machine with no existence outside of it. Kids need to understand what it actually takes to make all the commodities that they play with and enjoy. Where does stuff come from? Who makes it? What are those people like? What do they feel? What can we learn from them? What do we owe to them?

Fourth, nature. Machines are cool, but a leaf is just as fascinating as a tractor-trailer, and it’s alarming how appreciation of the wonders of nature seems to be disappearing. Too many spaces these days are barren of life, and I think that’s in part because Trumpian/Blippian thinking regards a plastic palm tree as indistinguishable from an actual palm tree. (It’s telling to me that instead of meeting an elephant in his elephant video—which he clearly has the budget to do—Blippi chooses to hold up a plastic model of an elephant.) 

Fifth, inventiveness. If you watched The Electric Company in the 70s, you’d have gotten to hear kids’ songs about words by Tom Lehrer, one of the 20th century’s greatest comic songwriters. Imagine that: a formidably talented lyricist putting his effort toward teaching kids about Silent E and the LY suffix. Electric Company songs, like Sesame Street songs (and unlike Blippi songs), were clever even when they were about something simple, like this one about pain, sung by a doctor and nurse as they wrap a wounded football player in bandages: 

Every boat has a chain
Every bib has a stain
Every globe has a Spain
And everyone has a pain 

So what do you really gain
It makes no sense to complain
From purple mountain to the fruited plain
Everyone has pain

The rounded tops of the walls are as important as anything else about the scene.

The Electric Company drew from Motown, show tunes, and Laugh-In, and featured genuinely talented people like Morgan Freeman. Its philosophy, like that of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, could have been summarized as children deserve the best. Sets, puppetry, costume, music, animation, stories, sketches, props: whatever we can give kids, we should give them. Pee Wee’s Playhouse had monster talents like Phil Hartman and Laurence Fishburne, Sesame Street has had some of the greatest musicians of the past century. Don’t patronize kids with “Oooh, a BALL.” They’re not puppies.

Next, mess and junk. It’s okay to show life’s “rough edges.” Not everything needs to be in a sparkling clean Las Vegas mall-world. Oscar the Grouch, with his “rusty trombones” and old telephones, found delight in the scrappy and the forlorn. Blippi always plays with perfect clean toys in perfect neat spaces, which is part of why something feels so false about him. Nature is dirty and messy. If Blippi showed more real kids, more real-seeming places, it would be a less “polished” show, but a better one. 

Finally, be weird. A dance number with singing bats? Why not! A jealous cat that says “meow” every other word? Yes. A song about horrible things to put in soups and salads? That’s exactly the right sort of thing. Anyone who has not studied the paintings of Dali, Magritte, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo is not fit to produce a children’s show. Kids love the absurd, and the absurd does not just consist of putting on a big bowtie. 

I will not raise Blippi children. The Blippi child will know that a banana is yellow, but that is all it will know. When they look in a mirror, all they see will be themselves. They will know how to pretend to have fun (“Tee hee! Wee!!”) but it won’t be clear if they’re really “happy and they know it.” They won’t be in touch with their feelings. They might know some basic facts about what the world is but won’t ask why the world is the way it is. They won’t be curious about the people around them, because they’ll live in a world of happy commodities, where nobody is ever confused and nothing is ever mysterious. They won’t be able to rhyme or invent. They will be nothing but good capitalist foot soldiers, ready to swallow whatever ideology they are fed. Worst of all, they will be boring, because nobody will have ever taught them what being interesting is.

We can break children out of Blippi’s static world, where children exist to play with the objects they are given and admire the machines that have been built. We can raise kids who think and dream and build. They will be sincere and intelligent, but no less energetic or wacky. But to help develop kids into thinking beings, we have to understand why Blippi is stupid and what he’s missing out on. We need to have a strong sense of what every child deserves and the commitment to avoiding low-effort, dumbed-down, pseudo-educational content. Let us do better than Blippi. 

Empire of Same

Over a few days in the summer of 2007, I made a leisurely ascent along the side of a Swiss mountain, sleeping in fields under stars. On the way, I rambled through the kind of idyllic villages you imagine in the Swiss Alps: chalet-style buildings, perfectly green pastures billowing, sharp snowy peaks flashing in the background, far blue sky. Though I saw none of them, I shared the mountains with ibex, deer, owls, golden eagles, and possibly a brown bear or two. Then one day I came to a lonely forest. The trail I was following into the green-dappled wood curved abruptly to the left, and just past its elbow, there stood a big black cavern. No road or tracks led to this mouth in the mountainside, and though the cave looked man-made, it had no discernable reason to be there. I felt pulled in.

But before we get to the tunnel, let’s go back a bit. Prior to finding the hole in the mountain, I’d spent the summer working in medieval Europe. Or, at least what I imagine medieval Europe sort of looked and felt like. I lived on a small farm nestled in the mountain chain that was also home to a town where Leonardo da Vinci is rumored to have completed the Mona Lisa. Wild dogs and wild boars haunted the dark forest fringing the farm’s pasturelands. One of the sheep apparently received a mortal bite from a wild dog (I say “apparently” because it happened just before I arrived and I am skeptical of the dodgy farm owners). For a few weeks, I slept out in an idle meadow and was awakened by snorts and grunts of many beasts rooting around my tent. The wild animals’ enigmatic presence lent suspense to my occasional late-night hikes up and down the mountain, which could take hours winding through dark patches of wood. A spooked boar can gore you to death easily. It’s a kind of suspense that seems more at home in the Middle Ages than today.

Materially speaking, this farm probably did look similar to an equivalent farm in medieval Italy. At that time, of course, the farm wouldn’t have been in “Italy,” which didn’t exist yet. Instead it was located in a territory called Liguria, which passed between the rule of various nations, kingdoms, and city-states through the Middle Ages. There would have almost certainly been far more wild animals then, and different crops. But the farmers who lived on that land would likely have had similar livestock, used similar tools, lived in similar (maybe even the very same) stone buildings, spoken a similar language, waking and resting to similar rhythms. The little lightbulbs and the communal flush toilet with dubious plumbing were probably the only major differences between the medieval version of the farm and the modern one I briefly inhabited. It was a very different kind of life from the one I was used to living in the industrialized 21st century United States, with its daily showers, ubiquitous screens, and very different sorts of rhythms, pleasures, and fears. These days, finding ways of life beyond the homogenizing force—or extractive grip—of imperialism is about as rare as stumbling on a brown bear in the Alps. We seem only able to find it in small pockets like that farm, hiding between the borders of today’s massive empires. 

American Empire 

Most of us live today as subjects under the rule of a fossil fuel-based liberal empire. The United States and its offspring industries, with some of the richer Group of Twenty countries joining as jolly sidekicks, administers a sprawling hegemony, animated by dead carbon, whose many arms touch both the material and intangible in every country on the planet. These tentacles have the effect of homogenizing and flattening many kinds of otherwise abundant diversity (environmental, cultural, political), like an octopus sweeping away a puffer fish’s intricate designs in underwater sand to leave only a blank beige behind. (Of course this is merely a metaphor; we know the intelligent, socialistic octopus would never do such a thing in real life.)

Just to pick one example on the less tangible side of things, the U.S. entertainment industry rules global media production. As Indrajit Banerjee, Director of Knowledge Societies Division at UNESCO, has written for the International Journal for Communications Studies, the United States “clearly dominates the world’s cultural industries….Whether it be in the remote villages in India or in the Kampongs of Malaysia, American and Western cultural icons and content make their overbearing presence felt.” University of Pennsylvania sociologist Diana Crane pointed out in a study on cultural globalization that the upper echelon of the World Box Office “consists of American films and a few U.S. co-productions,” and nothing else.

And you can be sure the U.S. entertainment industry isn’t just benevolently handing out nice movies. What the United States exports to screens across the world is more than just programming: it’s also modes of programming. With entertainment infrastructure like Netflix, news show formats, storyline formulas, franchise characters, and remarkably consistent rules for what nonfiction documentaries will cover, the United States shapes and confines the world’s cultural production with an eye toward dominating the market and maximizing profit. It may be the Golden Age of television, in that the only color is gold. 

Beyond narrowing content and structural expectations, the dominating impact of U.S. entertainment on ideology can hardly be overstated. Glenn Greenwald has made the point in The Guardian, arguing that one movie in particular (Zero Dark Thirty) illustrates the bigger pattern of propaganda packaged as entertainment, condemning the fact that “Liberal Hollywood has produced the ultimate hagiography of the most secretive arm of America’s National Security State, while liberal film critics lead the parade of praise and line up to bestow it with every imaginable accolade.” It certainly isn’t the only movie selling slick entertainment wrapped around a nougaty center of martial propaganda. Consider Jack Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Sicario 2, American Sniper, the Avengers franchise, Act of Valor, Top Gun, 12 Strong, Green Zone, and countless indistinguishable cop shows starring heavily armed and outrageously sympathetic police officers.

In addition to the ubiquity of American propaganda pumped into screens in virtually every country on the planet to do the dirty, tedious job of manufacturing support for rapacious foreign policy and bootstraps economics, it’s also just dull as shit. The result of all this—the remakes, the franchises, the narrow boundaries of acceptable stories—is to produce a painful sameness. A uniformity of thought, ideology, and ideas. All this sameness conspires to flatten mass media, and with it the world that it depicts. The sameness limits what sorts of tales get told, what kind of acts are depicted as justified and what ones are not, and compresses how viewers see the world and their place in it. 

But entertainment isn’t the only, or even the most damaging, realm of sameness that imperial tedium has imposed on the world. There’s an ever-growing list of areas in which uniformity ensnares our lives.

Some examples: 

  • Beyond confining the shape of media, the publishing and entertainment industries and many others have helped to homogenize language use, too. English makes up by far the world’s largest second language. With 753 million English-as-a-second-language speakers, the next largest second language, Hindi, has barely a third as many (and in many cases is only a second language because, thanks to colonialism, it was displaced by English as the first!) Language loss is very real. According to UNESCO, today languages are lost at a rate of roughly one every two weeks; 600 have disappeared in the last century, while up to 90 percent are unlikely to survive this century at current rates of decline. Without overstating the role of language in shaping reality, we can at least acknowledge that the conventions of a language help to shape the contours of thought, impact the concepts that we draw on day to day, and create frames through which to understand reality. 
  • The European academy has shaped the standard of what universities should look like and how they operate all over the world. The corporatization of university management in the Global North has accompanied the neoliberalization of business, government, and civil society everywhere else. Some of the world’s most elite universities have seen their endowments balloon into the tens of billions of dollars under sprawling teams of professional portfolio managers. Administrative bloat has resulted in an explosion of superfluous, high-paid, and powerful management positions, with at least fifteen university presidents taking million-dollar salaries in 2019. To pay for it, tuition fees have skyrocketed with universities repositioning themselves from accessible places of learning for students to degree factories for indebted customers. Many researchers, too, have internalized such neoliberal ethics, openly taking money from large corporations like the fossil fuel industry, while tenured faculty often fail to show solidarity with striking colleagues.     
  • American-style intensive agriculture has standardized food production globally, with a narrow set of practices, chemicals, species, and supply chains squeezing much of the world’s productive arable land through a bottleneck that constrains the ways in which farmers interact with the land and the kinds of food they produce, and even impacts how and where we eat the food that’s grown. American fast-food chains are ubiquitous globally.
  • A few fast fashion brands have consolidated the clothing industry, which means that a handful of companies have a huge impact on how millions of people present themselves in the world, homogenizing how people physically look. Zara has 1,600 stores in 58 countries. And this is not to mention the harmful impact this industry has on both workers and ecologies
  • Monopolized retail markets determine what products are available. The four largest retailers in the world are U.S. companies, and they have tremendous power in deciding what kinds of products get sold, and therefore, what products get made in the first place. They are shapers of demand every bit as much as they are suppliers of demand.  
  • Silicon Valley moulds the Internet in its cornflower-blue-hoodie-grey-cargo-shorts-clad image. Two computer giants, Microsoft and Apple, dominate global market share, meaning those two companies determine the contours of hardware, software, and the basic philosophy of how computers are used in the first place. Meanwhile, a handful of companies, mostly U.S.-based, dominate global web traffic. Alphabet, Inc, parent company of Google and YouTube, alone nets 85 billion visits per month. The next highest visited is Facebook with a mere (mere) 19.9 billion visits per month. Google manipulates search results with a right-wing and big business bias; YouTube, inadvertently or otherwise, funnels viewers to extreme right-wing propaganda; while Facebook decides who or what to censor based on seventh-richest-person-in-the-world Mark Zuckerberg’s whim. If you’re keeping track, that means the three most visited websites in the world, with over 100 billion monthly views, are controlled by two (2!!) extremely rich men.
  • Speaking of rich people making decisions: concentrated American venture capital decides which start-up ventures launch and which don’t. In the United States, 77 percent of capital that goes to starting new companies is concentrated in ten cities from a handful of funders. Such highly-concentrated venture capital is a big part of why so many new companies are developing useless smartphone apps, dystopian AI, and ever-more addictive videogames that can net a quick return on investment with low upfront capital, instead of creating actually useful technology such as innovative renewable energy.

Even the structures by which we measure things to be morally good or bad have been streamlined and boxed in by the fossil fuel-based liberal empire. The trans-Atlantic revival of laissez-faire liberalism intensified in the 1970s, while Reagan and Thatcher delivered the neoliberal consensus from right-wing think tanks into the mainstream, carrying with it very specific moral tenets. The doctrine that came out of the Mont Pelerin Society and Heritage Foundation, and then the wrinkly mouths of the Gipper and Iron Lady, made very clear what they considered virtues, and what were vices:

Virtues: corporate management hierarchies, privatization, marketization, monopoly, atomizing competitive individuals, concentrating wealth, the nuclear family. 

Vices: unions, economic equality, commons, welfare states, democracy, wealth taxes, distributing value, “society.”

I saw this simple set of values personally on vivid display when I visited a friend in Sweden. Two of my friend’s university buddies, one from India, the other from Singapore, joined us for a night of cards. As the evening wore on the cards slipped to the side as an argument about politics erupted. In aggressive declaratives, the two international students reminded us that only people who are successful in the free market deserve life and prosperity; that only economic freedom matters and government intrusion is the highest form of tyranny; that only markets can efficiently allocate resources; that people are inherently selfish and should be treated as such. Despite these students’ culturally and geographically disparate backgrounds, they used identical language pulled straight from Road to Serfdom or Atlas Shrugged or the American Enterprise Institute. The fact that the two of them were living in a democratic socialist country, enjoying its free healthcare, cheap or free higher education, subsidized housing, and many other perks of a partially socialized economy, did not appear to register.

The homogeneity of these values is remarkable. Any evangelical religion would be proud of their uniform spread through virtually every culture in the world. They have been violently institutionalized not only by imperial powers like the United States, but also by global NGOs such as the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund. These values are also baked into programming in the increasingly consolidated media. Six companies control 90 percent of U.S. media, and have global reach. One company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, owns 191 television stations that reach 40 percent of Americans. AT&T owns CNN, Warner Bros., HBO and many others. Comcast owns MSNBC, NBC, Telemundo, and many others. Fox Corporation owns Fox Broadcasting Company and many others. Owned by billionaires or run by multi-millionaires, these companies maintain a rigid conformity, promoting the virtues of economic liberalism and condemning what it considers vices, spreading ever more right-wing bias. The praise for “globalization” hides the darker flattening of life and possibility that comes with it. Global trade and cultural exchange aren’t, of course, inherently bad. But this globalized system often looks less like “exchange” and more like a classical empire imposing a narrow set of norms and rules onto other cultures, standardizing acceptable ways of living, and extracting resources and labor from that regimented sameness. To draw from a pop culture example currently controlled by Disney, whose products accounted for nearly 40 percent of the 2019 U.S. box office: it looks like rows of white-armored Stormtroopers patrolling and subjugating the diverse life of the universe by order of imperial bureaucrats. The result is one style of life, one way of being and thinking, that dominates expansive areas of land, swallowing peoples of many backgrounds, and imposing stale blandness across a global empire of sameness. 

Roman Empire

There’s a famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that’s relevant here. King Arthur of the Britons approaches a local filth-hauling peasant, asking him who owns a nearby castle. The peasant, whose name is Dennis, objects to what he considers the King’s disrespectful treatment of him. When Arthur asserts his kingly authority, Dennis replies, “And how d’you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By ‘anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.” 

When Arthur reaffirms that he is in fact “King of the Britons,” a nearby peasant woman replies, “King of the who?…I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.” 

Confused, Arthur continues his attempt to learn which lord resides in the nearby castle. The woman informs him that no one lives there. “We don’t ‘ave a lord,” she says. Dennis interjects: “We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.” It’s a really funny scene: the very idea of a filth-hauling cockney peasant named Dennis in Arthurian Britain using 20th century political terminology to describe his leftist commune! But, as it happens, an anarchic commune in post-imperial Roman Britain is not that far-fetched.

In 117 C.E., the Roman Empire reached its height, covering much of continental Europe, Britain, and stretching even into North Africa and Southwest Asia. For some of its history, the Roman Empire’s cultural imperialism may have been in some ways even less “overbearing” than American fossil fueled-liberalism today, regularly allowing subjects and migrants to continue practicing their own traditions and religions, and to speak local languages outside the official Latin and Greek. But it still imposed a certain sameness on its territories, whether through currencies, engineering technology, architecture, urban planning, intensive agriculture, laws and customs, or military structure. (Not to mention often enslaving and conscripting local populations.) 

This Roman hegemony persisted for several hundred years before the empire fractured in two and the Western half began its long plunge. The fall of Roman rule in the West opened the door for alternative kinds of government and economy. In the power vacuum left by a deteriorating Roman state, literal space was opened for new settlements to form, while new governments arose in existing cities. Some of those post-Roman settlements remained under control of the Roman elite who managed to hold onto their wealth and power in the region. But others enabled people to build their own governments and elect their own leaders. In Britain, where Caledonians, Picts, and Britons had resisted Roman rule for centuries, the locals certainly took the opportunity to resume or expand more egalitarian ways of life. Someone like “Dennis” and his crew starting up something resembling an autonomous collective anarchic commune in the countryside certainly would not have been impossible. Although Anglo-Saxon invaders likely brought their hierarchical system with them, there were many years before they established a strong state in southern England, and centuries before Normans and Vikings would conquer much of the rest of the island. 

Many communities, some mutualistic and variably egalitarian, grew out of post-Roman Europe across the continent, and not just in the countryside but even in cities. Free cities in Germany stood outside the feudal control of lords, while Flanders, Italy, and France enjoyed urban communes. Peter Kropotkin pointed to such medieval communes as examples of collective self-defense sharing features with modern communism and socialism. This diversity of governments only became broadly possible when the threat and presence of a huge, organized empire was removed. In addition to the greater variety of governments, “Dennis” and his crew may have even lived longer and enjoyed more leisure time after the Roman collapse. Some research has suggested that life expectancy increased by a couple of years when the empire stopped extracting surplus food from Britain.  

Medieval Europe, for all of its many flaws and undesirable qualities, offers one opening for thinking about how many possibilities exist that we don’t get to experience: different ways of living, of relating to one another, of understanding our place in the cosmos, discovering meaning in the world, of hauling filth, of doing music and arts. The collapse of omnipotent imperial systems may not necessarily open the door for glorious utopias, given the already-existing confines of history, psychology, and geography, but it does offer the hope of building something else in the expanses opened up. And although we are always confined by such material realities, the exciting thing about the wake of a fallen empire or a collapsed order is that collective and individual human choices suddenly become vital: whether building a future of violent tyrants, or one of solidarity and mutual aid, becomes a matter of our decisions. 

 I entered the cavern, shining a small headlamp whose light soon flashed onto spindly white fingers of a dead branch, sending a shiver through my body. Standing at the edge of the sunlight and the darkness ahead, buzzing, I looked into the perfect void beyond the thin fingers of the branch and slowly backed away, into the forest. Consulting my map, I saw that there was a small village nearby. I had no idea what this cavern was or where it went, so I decided I would do the prudent thing and ask a villager about this mystery before plunging in.

The “village” turned out to be little more than a single tavern. I entered the darkened pub to find what I assumed was the entire population of the town seated around a long table. A man got up to see what I wanted. When he found I spoke little German he beckoned another townsperson over who generously attempted to communicate with me in halting English. I pulled out the map showing her the path I was following and where I wished to go. I asked her if the cave was a tunnel that would provide a short-cut, which seemed the only reasonable, “productive,” explanation for my desire to go through it. As I had been taking my time on my journey, spending hours beside rivers washing my clothes and generally enjoying the sun, my food was dwindling, and I wanted to make it to the next sizable town, preferably before dark. It wasn’t clear she understood my question. Finally, after miming a big tunnel the best I could, she said, “Ah yes. Don’t go in without light…”  

Before Empire

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End, disregarded by critics while simultaneously shoveling in nearly $1 billion internationally, was created and financed by Disney—and yet, despite that, the writers managed to sneak in a subversive plot. While the movie may seem like nothing more than popcorn pablum, complete with a tentacle-faced Bill Nighy and millions of magical crabs, the story is about a monopolistic corporation attempting to impose the uniformity of empire on the high seas by co-opting the mythological forces of the last “free” way of life—piracy—and turning them to business ends. Essentially, it’s a story about the villainy of Disney, a fact which appears to have passed unnoticed by the company’s executives. The movie presents the specter of a world disenchanted and monetized by large companies, retaining no dark corners and no wild spaces, as something hideous and tragic. In a quiet, critical, and easily overlooked scene, Captains Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa are standing off to the side on a beach together, and Barbossa, lamenting the dwindling space for the pirate in the new world, says to Sparrow, “The world used to be a bigger place.”

Sparrow replies morosely: “World’s still the same, there’s just…less in it.” 

The wilderness of the oceans, forests, and deserts is the last free space, and the modern fossil fuel empire imposes sameness even there. When it comes to wilderness and wildlife today, there’s just less of it. Much, much less. Perhaps the most vivid example of this is the replacement of lush, biodiverse rainforests with straight rows of uniform oil palm plantations. These plantations are essentially dead chemical deserts. Aside from the species Elaeis guineensis, virtually nothing else can live there. The plantations are constantly sprayed with intense herbicide and pesticide poisons, and protected from animals that may try to inhabit the area. 

Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR. West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Source:

This kind of sameness is not exactly new. All intensive agriculture, even the kind that predates potent pesticides, seeks to exclude wildlife from an area of domesticated food production, whether grazing lands or croplands. The very definition of intensive agriculture entails taking a piece of land in which many different species thrive and fencing it off, removing the many species of non-useful plant and animal there, and allowing only a few profitable species to live on it. My whole job on the medieval Italian farm, after all, was to keep the wild dogs and boars away from the sheep and gardens. And this was an organic farm that relied little on modern synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The ancient Roman farms, too, would have plowed over wild areas and displaced much or all of the wildlife inhabiting them. 

But while intensive agriculture itself is not new, what is new is the scope and intensity of this kind of imperial agrarian sameness imposed on the world’s ecologies. The kind of homogenizing flatness we see with cultural imperialism happens at the cellular level with agrarian imperialism. DNA diversity gets hewn down to a narrow range of life, and then those few profitable species see their numbers explode in vast, unbalanced quantities. A huge Marvel Cinematic Universe of shitty tomatoes, flavorless apples, 72 billion land animals slaughtered per year, and a staggering 1 trillion or more sea creatures killed for food annually.

Agrarian empires of the past were limited regionally and temporally; they conquered a small patch of the world’s land, and only a (relatively) brief period of time. Even the Mongolian Empire, the largest land empire in history, covered only about 16 percent of the earth’s land mass and only lasted about 160 years. Such empires always burst into flame and fizzled out within a few centuries or millennia, with an average lifespan of just under 300 years. Today’s fossil-augmented empire threatens to cover every inch of the globe before it burns itself (and everything else) out. In the sense that it is contained in the carbon dioxide particles in the atmosphere, or the microplastics in the ocean, it already has covered every inch of the globe. 

The efficiency with which empire is able to transform biodiverse life into homogenous rows of economically productive life has never been matched. The supercharging of agriculture and development with fossil fueled-machines allows a few people to grind whole forests into sawdust in a few days, strip the ground, artificially re-fertilize it, and plant it while barely lifting a hand. Through its millennia of rulership by intensive agrarian empires, Italy has retained some admirable biodiversity with such ecologically important megafauna as wolves, bears, lynx, ibex, and many raptors still roaming tiny pockets of the peninsula, if in severely diminished numbers and, again, typically in the alpine regions that are difficult to bring under the rule of imperial uniformity or productive mass agriculture. Whether such creatures will survive the fossil fuel empire remains to be seen, but given the critically endangered status of most of Italy’s megafauna, it’s not looking good. 

When it comes to agriculture, there are present-day alternatives practiced by small pockets of (often indigenous) people, such as agroecological food production in which domesticated crops are interspersed with wild endemic plants, and pests are kept at bay through natural predation or by including species that pest insects find distasteful. These tactics, alongside indigenous foraging land and other areas not totally fenced off to wildlife and phytodiversity, rely far less on injections of fertilizers and pesticides, and frequently none at all. But they still only inhabit narrow strips between big industrial farms and it’s hard to imagine, short of a total imperial collapse, how they could compete in productive capacity without a complete dismantling and replacement of global supply chains and government incentives. 

Art by Heather Milligan

We can find hints of what may come after agrarian empires by glimpsing what came before. A couple years ago, The Atlantic reported on an exciting geological find in New Mexico from a time long before empire: the fossilized footprints of a giant ground sloth. These creatures were less like the ridiculous, adorable tree hobbits most contemporary sloths bring to mind and more like huge woolly bears, some even growing to the size of modern elephants. What was so interesting about these particular fossils was that nestled inside the twenty-inch pawprints were little human footprints. This means some people were following this sloth around, leaping from print to print. Why? The researchers couldn’t be sure, but their theories ranged from hunting or stalking practice to a band of teenagers just harassing the local sloth. 

What this find vividly illustrates is the close proximity that prehistoric people had with all kinds of fantastical beasts we can barely imagine, all over the world. Today when we think of megafauna, we typically think of sub-Saharan varieties like giraffes, hippos, lions, Indian tigers, or Indonesian orangutans. The world’s largest nonhuman animals have been crushed into the tropics, areas historically difficult to reach by ruthless saws and handaxes, and thereby escaping many of the most anthropocentric ambitions of historic empires. Britain, too, was once covered in forests, filled with lynx, bears, wolves, beavers, polecats, wolverines, wooly rhinoceros, wooly mammoths, elk, wild boar, reindeer, and many others. Almost all these species are now extinct or extirpated. But with fossil fuels and extractive imperial economies, the tropics are newly accessible, which is why they’re being destroyed so intensely today, and why without immense, immediate change, they’ll soon look like the deadlands of Europe. 

But there was a time the whole world was covered in such megafauna, and the relationships humans built with these animals were intimate and varied. This fact is captured in the almost universal animism that shaped prehistoric peoples’ conception of divinity, imputing (observing?) gods and goddesses into the many creatures that surrounded them. It can also be found in cave art. As Barbara Ehrenreich observed in The Baffler, prehistoric cave paintings often seem to place humans at the fringes of the animal world, if they include people at all. Instead of the drama’s central protagonists, humans appear to take the role of a rather absurd little jester in the court of the animal kings and queens.     

Art by Heather Milligan

What changed? Part of the answer is the climate. The earth warmed between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago, ushering in the new Holocene epoch, accelerating a major extinction event that was already underway. This Quaternary extinction killed off nearly two hundred species of large mammals, such as woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats, and of course the giant sloths. Dozens of other species of reptiles and birds also died off. There are many theories behind what caused the extinction, but there can be little doubt that human overhunting and competition played a part, even if by accident. While there is evidence of foraging human groups acting deliberately to avoid overhunting prey, they could have easily misjudged the replacement rate of the species they hunted (this can be difficult to calculate even with sophisticated tools today). The new climate was good for human reproduction; it allowed foragers to more intensely control their ecologies, extract ever more caloric energy from the land, and eventually, over many generations, slowly become intensive farmers and herders, pushing out the wildlife that competed for nutritious biomass. 

But even after so many species became extinct, there was still a great abundance of diverse life all over the globe for thousands of years. Some of the steepest declines have only occurred since the beginning of industrialization two hundred years ago. Today’s empire is simply much more effective and efficient when it comes to killing off life and homogenizing ecologies for future use in markets. We are living in the midst of an extinction far greater even than the Quaternary event. It’s hard to imagine, in this dying world, the abundance of life that was with us only a couple centuries ago. These days, outside of the rare seams between empire, like that Italian farm, many of us only ever really get to interact with species that have adapted to urban environments, like pigeons, corvids, and seagulls, and interact is not even close to the right word. If they regard our presence at all, the pigeons seem to consider usan obstacle to their treasured crumbs, the lazy sauntering corvids look petulantly inconvenienced, and the seagulls surly and contemptuous. (Reasonably so!) My last intimate experience with wildlife occurred nearly a year ago tending a sick hedgehog who had likely been poisoned by pesticides put out by suburban slug-phobes. And yet, standing face-to-face with a giraffe (from a platform) in a wildlife park, being charged by a bear in the woods, glimpsing a Canadian lynx by a lonely Ontario highway, or catching the lope of a wild wolverine in northern Michigan, have been some of my life’s most awe-(and fear-)evoking experiences. It’s no wonder that mulleted tiger-ranchers can get by hawking even a sad simulation of contact with wondrous megafauna.

In even the wildest parts of the United States today—itself one of the wilder countries in the Global North—one struggles to imagine the more abundant life of even the recent past. Roy Scranton illustrates this problem in The Baffler

It’s highly unlikely that more than a few people, for example, are aware in a vivid, day-to-day way that enormous reptilian monsters once roamed the land we inhabit, though every schoolchild has been apprised of this awesome fact. Even fewer people, perhaps no one at all, walk around grieving Ainsworth’s salamander, the Alvord cutthroat trout, the blue pike, the California grizzly bear, the Carolina parakeet, the Cascade Mountain wolf, the deepwater cisco, the dusky seaside sparrow, the Eastern elk, the Eastern cougar, the eelgrass limpet, Goff’s pocket gopher, the green-blossom pearly mussel, the heath hen, the New Mexico sharp-tailed grouse, the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, the passenger pigeon, the Rocky Mountain locust, the silver trout, the Southern California kit fox, the Xerces blue butterfly, or the umbilicate pebblesnail, just a few of the North American species that have gone extinct due to human activity since the late nineteenth century.

The absence of such creatures makes their habitation in a place currently occupied by a Denny’s seem unbelievable. But there was a time, before industry, before intensive agriculture, before the Quaternary extinctions, when humans would have lived side by side with abundantly diverse wildlife. I hear crickets now only in 1990s movies. 

It wasn’t hard to find the tunnel again. The sun was on its way down, but it didn’t matter. The tunnel was darker than the night. I flicked on the headlamp again and stood staring as the small ray dissolved in the dark. My insides quivered, my fingers trembled, and I had to force myself to walk forward. I was entirely alone in the woods. I hadn’t seen any other hikers in days. No one was watching me. No one knew I was there. I could have turned back in fear, without embarrassment. 

 As I trudged into the dark the air grew cooler. I stayed to the right-hand side where I could keep the wall within my tiny pool of light. The left wall disappeared. The tunnel curved, and the edge of daylight at the entrance snapped out of view. Only my crunching footsteps broke the hard, close silence. I looked around trying to orient myself to the size of the space or whatever might be in the cave, but my headlamp’s weak diodes didn’t reach far. Every now and again, the wall to my right yawned into open black space that I restrained myself from pointing the light into, letting my imagination invent the terrors that might or might not lurk in the pits. A line of horrific Schrödinger’s hallways. 

After a while, something broke the monotony of the flat, gravelly ground. Some object lay directly ahead of my path; I couldn’t make it out in the weak lamplight. It was a pale, flesh-colored lump. A number of possibilities flashed through my mind, each more gruesome than the last: a limb, a head, a corpse. My adrenaline accelerated. I approached the object and caught it with my light. 

It was a teddy bear. A little wet, ratty teddy bear. I wondered how long it had lain there, or how or why it ended up in the cave. Since there was no other debris around, I doubted that it had simply washed in from outside with a flood. The boring Occam’s razor answer was that local kids knew the tunnel well and one had once left their teddy bear behind when playing in it, but my mind wasn’t in a state to settle on a reassuring logical conclusion and instead flitted around more sinister explanations. I stepped over the toy and quickened my pace. Again I felt a tingle in my skin and considered turning back. I had no idea how long the tunnel stretched on or where it led, what it was for, whether mineshaft or abandoned road or something else, or what else I’d find. But before I could give in to that more reasonable voice, a light appeared up ahead. I’ve rarely been so relieved. It was not lost on me that characters in movies tend to get caught right before the end of the tunnel. But Hollywood’s hegemony did not reach this place. I stepped into the evening light safely and left the darkness behind me under the clear sky in the gorgeous evening air.

How do we transform it? many are pondering what could come after the global lockdowns and economic shocks of COVID-19, and the widespread protests that have followed in the wake of the latest murders by police in the heart of the empire. These crises are an opportunity—and a necessity—when it comes to imagining new ways of ordering life and governing economies. But there is only likely to be an opening of possibility if this pandemic and these demonstrations totally fracture the global fossil-fueled liberal order, and dismantle the cultural and martial forces that rule the world, which may or may not happen. This empire and its forebears have with-stood far greater shocks than the coronavirus and civil unrest. More human agency will need to be involved in dismantling it today. If anything, far from breaking fossil fueled liberal imperialism, this pandemic and uprising could increase its hold on power, solidify its dominance, or send it into a long, authoritarian death spiral. While it may not follow from our present crises, it is certain that eventually this empire will fall. Every single empire that has existed has crumbled, and this one must, too, if only by destroying itself. Whatever comes after it will necessarily come into a denuded world; “the lone and level sands stretch far away.” As soon as the fossil fuel empire is gone, some wildlife may quickly rebound. Some of the wild and mysterious places may come back, filled this time with real bears and tigers. Much that once thrived will stay dead. But even in a deadened world, with the collapse of this order there will follow more diverse kinds of human life and government. It will be necessary as socialists to hold onto the values that we hold sacred—diversity, egalitarianism, solidarity, and liberty—and we’ll have to keep them at the heart of our project.

Work Hard and Get Rich (Or More Likely, Die Trying)

If ever there were a well-respected class of rodent, it would have to be the beaver. They’re notoriously hardworking, acting as tree-cutters, masons, and engineers. They are a keystone species—a species so important to an ecosystem that it would be unrecognizable without them—because their dams provide shelter and food for dozens of species, prevent flooding downstream, and filter and purify tons of water (in stark contrast to human-created dams, which are ecologically destructive and need to be detonated as fast as we can ship the dynamite). Beavers even build their own canals, connecting their food supplies to their ponds. Plus, the bastards are vegetarian, something I despair of ever accomplishing. 

Given this impressive resume, beavers seem like the perfect animal mascot for the Republican conception of Personal Responsibility. If these two words don’t send echoes of Fox News segments and dinner table rants through your head, then you are very lucky. To give you a sense for what you’re missing, let me introduce you to Dennis Prager, who in 1994 wrote “The American Tradition of Personal Responsibility.” This essay is a perfect encapsulation of the conservative mindset on individual agency. Here’s a representative excerpt:

No One Is Guilty

Yet another battle against personal accountability/responsibility is the battle against guilt. No one is guilty of behavior: If you steal, you are the product of socioeconomic forces; if you’re 15 years old and get pregnant, it is because there weren’t enough condoms and you didn’t get a good enough sex education in school; if you murder, it is because you had too easy access to a gun and/or because you were raised in a poor neighborhood.

[…] This was an example of another way of undermining personal responsibility–psychologizing actions rather than judging them. Rather than good and evil, there is healthy and sick. For example, men who rape are often labeled sick. But they are not all necessarily sick. They may be normal-but bad. It comes as sad news to many modern women-men are by nature rapists. “I like woman, I take woman” is male nature. The reason that most men do not rape is because they hold values that forbid them to, not because it is foreign to their nature. There are armies that rape and there are armies that do not rape, and the armies that rape do not do so because they consist almost entirely of sick men. The soldiers of the Red Army were not all sick. But they did have 28 years of nihilism in their country. A generation was raised with no right and wrong, just Communist Party notions of what is “progressive.”

[…] We cannot know exactly what normal and sick are, but we can and do know what good and evil are. We have substituted normal and sick for good and evil, and that, again, means no personal responsibility. How can you be held responsible if you did what you did because you are sick?

Throughout the essay, Prager goes on at length about how our wayward youth have been brainwashed into believing that no one should fail, and that feelings matter more than actions. To people on the left, these ideas seem self-evidently reductive. Obviously, there are a whole host of social and economic factors that influence the decisions individual people make, which can’t be easily boiled down to any concept as simple as “personal responsibility.” Many leftists might also object to the idea that humans are naturally a bunch of murderers and rapists whose tendencies toward evil are just barely restrained by “values.” But it’s not just Dennis Prager who believes these things. I personally have known many good people who would quickly jump to assume that a thief or a pregnant teen or a homeless person had “poor character,” that this “poor character” was the sole explanation for their misfortune, and that what they really needed was to be taught a lesson in “responsibility.” Where does this shockingly pervasive mindset come from? And—if we agree that this way of viewing the world is incorrect, and harmful—what can we do about it?

Growing up, I instinctively disliked the “personal responsibility” mindset. It didn’t match with my observations of the world. For example, when I was a preteen, maybe a little younger, I remember discovering my aversion to road rage when my mother was driving the Smurfmobile (our blue Dodge Caravan) down Boxley Boulevard. Suddenly, a car whizzed past and cut us off. My mother was beloved by all the little children at church as the “Beautiful Storyteller” from Bible school. At that moment, however, she leaned on the horn and shouted, “Jackass!” I was upset, and thought it was unfair to call that guy names when we didn’t know why he was speeding. What if his wife was in labor? What if he had never, ever sped before and there was some kind of emergency? Isn’t it wrong to be so mad and to condemn him? You don’t know, I said. I won the fight. 

Pure, youthful empathy—untainted by years of driving on roads which are indeed often filled with assholes—let me see the speed demon’s behavior as subject to circumstance, rather than a sole result of “disposition” or “character.” (Possibly, it becomes harder to charitably think through these hypothetical explanations for people’s actions the more often they inconvenience you, hence my mom’s angry reaction.) The tendency to assume that a driver who cuts you off is an asshole, whereas your own speeding ticket last week was totally justified—you’re not an asshole, you were just late for work that one time!—is something that psychologists have dubbed the  “fundamental attribution error.” It’s one of many sneaky mental habits responsible for why we can’t seem to cut each other some slack. 

This phenomenon can easily be spotted in society’s tendency to blame poverty on poor people’s bad choices. See this characteristic remark from Bill O’Reilly in 2004: “You gotta look people in the eye and tell ‘em they’re irresponsible and lazy. And who’s gonna wanna do that? Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period. Period.” Conservatives like O’Reilly and Prager are fond of acting like their willingness to assign guilt is evidence of their unflinching realism, whereas their lefty opponents are just bleeding hearts who can’t accept the truth. But the fact is, the belief that poverty is the result of “choices” is very much not supported by empirical evidence. The best single figure to punch a hole in the “indolent poor” myth is the productivity-wage gap. Nearly half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, but productivity has outpaced wages by more than 600% since 1979. 

The graph from the Economic Policy Institute shows, in short, that workers are producing, but they’re not earning. Combine that with the fact that we’ve had historically low unemployment in recent years (barring the recent catastrophic impacts of coronavirus), and you have a simple conclusion: most of America is working, and their work is creating value, but that value doesn’t make it to their paychecks. (Where could it be going???)

This problematic and unfounded belief about the “indolent poor” isn’t held only by Fox News pundits; almost a third of US adults (largely Republican) believe that poor people are poor because they are lazy, according to Pew Research Center.

How does such an unfounded narrative become widespread? Obviously, education, corporate news media, and devotion to capital play a role. We can also find some explanations in psychological research. We already talked about the “fundamental attribution error,” the seemingly deep-seated human tendency to accept nuanced excuses for our own behavior while harshly condemning the same behavior in others. It turns out that we have a lot of blind spots about ourselves, and that these can contribute to not only our day-to-day assessment of individual situations, but our entire theory of how the world operates.

In one experiment, researcher Paul Piff rigged a game of Monopoly so that some randomly determined players started the game with more money. When the privileged players inevitably won, Piff asked them why they believed they had been successful. The winners answered with descriptions of their clever property purchases, completely forgetting the initial random coin toss that determined who began the game with an advantage. This phenomenon—believing that those on top deserve to be there, and those on the bottom likewise deserve their place—is called Just-World Fallacy. The conclusions we draw about the world around us are intrinsically flawed by our silent biases, always ready to shield us from the truth that we, too, might be subject to forces outside our control. Attribution error whispers in our ear during the nightly news: those people unable to make rent April 1st were irresponsible—sure, the pandemic is unfortunate, but hey, they could have been thrifty and saved more. Just-World Fallacy tells us to change the channel: why feel guilty holed up in our cozy homes when, after all, we deserve to be safe and comfortable, because of how hard we worked to get here? 

Conservatives aren’t wrong for finding beavers’ hard work to be truly impressive. Their dams need to be watertight to provide shelter and protection come winter. If a beaver hears the sound of running water, he is immediately relentless in finding the source and plugging the hole. It doesn’t matter whether the beaver is tired and had planned to chill out and nibble on some lilypads rolled up like cigars

Art by John Biggs

But the conservative worldview fails to take into account that not only is it impossible for many humans to work like beavers, but that people who do work like beavers are exhausted and frequently desperate. The “personal responsibility” crowd tends to argue that however hard the circumstances—however big the hole in the dam—you should just work even harder to overcome them. But let’s dispense with the narrative that hard work is a virtue, and admit what the beavers know: this extraordinary exertion is simply an absolute necessity to not die. About 13 million US workers have more than one job. 12 million people living below 200% of the poverty line (a more realistic threshold of financial hardship in America) have full-time jobs. A society with an abundance of wealth which still works its citizens to the bone in order to survive is sick. Not only do many people still suffer financially and physically, but the spell we have cast to treat work as a blessing rather than a curse takes an emotional toll. This, in turn, makes us even more prone to that fundamental attribution error: if we’re both required to work incredibly hard, and conditioned to believe that working this way is morally good, then it’s very easy to assume that people who don’t work like this, or can’t, are morally suspect.

Maybe the beavers have endless energy and love to fix their dam holes, but I rather think they’re irritated by them (especially when the holes are made by asshole human nature-tourists who want to watch the beavers scramble). I think I know how the beaver feels. Working so tirelessly, creating something to be proud of, but being unable to ignore that faint sound of running water, that ominous clue that maybe something isn’t perfect. You tell yourself it can’t really be that important, can it? For once, can’t “great, just not perfect” be good enough? But it won’t ever be. You’re conditioned to find that sound at any cost and plug the hole—your life depends on it.

Art by John Biggs

I definitely know how that feels. I know how it feels to go to the doctor because you can’t get over a cold, and leave with a note to take a week off work because apparently the problem is that you’re so anxious and depressed by the sound of water rushing out of your carefully-constructed dam all the goddamn time. I know what it’s like to be so obsessed with taking care of yourself and your loved ones, with always being responsible for everything and working hard, that you see the entire world through that lens. Maybe some days you even resent anyone who seems like they might be having an easier time of it. You might want to say “when I was your age, I had to walk to school uphill both ways—in the snow!” You might hear a news story about those 13 million people with multiple jobs and remember a time that you, too, had to work very hard. You might resent when people imply we should change the world for the better, so future generations do not have to work as hard; after all, those changes weren’t around to help you, those people weren’t there to sympathize as you scurried to build your dam. 

Another fun biological fact about beavers is that they chew constantly not just to reshape their environment, but also to stop their own bodies from violently betraying them. A beaver can chew through a 5 inch willow tree in 3 minutes because of their strong teeth. While tooth enamel is usually enriched with magnesium for strength, beavers have stronger iron teeth, the red mineral turning their teeth to their distinctive orange. Those incredible teeth that chop down up to 200 trees annually to build dams, that plough through branches for food, that fend off enemies, are constantly being worn down with use. To keep up, the beaver’s teeth grow constantly throughout their life, up to 4 feet a year. But if a beaver, like any other rodent, is unable to wear down their teeth, they just keep growing⁠—into their skulls, through the roofs of their mouth, through their eyeballs. That house-building, food-chewing, enemy-biting gift becomes a curse if left unchecked. 

I’m attached to my hard-working beaver teeth. I am so embarrassingly attached to them that I let them grow and grow until they turned inward and pierced me. This is how people become “workaholics”: they push themselves to cultivate a stronger and stronger work ethic, in the name of survival, but then have to work harder and harder to satisfy their own internal demands. And sometimes, when you’re hard on yourself, the fundamental attribution error then just magnifies how hard you’re willing to be on others. But this, as the name suggests, is an error. I am both proud of my sprint through college to save money, and resentful that I had to do it that way—but that doesn’t mean I should oppose student debt cancellation. Why should future generations suffer to avoid debt simply because I had to? Are they lazy or uncommitted or entitled for wanting what I would have wanted for myself, if it had been possible? Or was it cruel to put me in that position in the first place, and therefore cruel to wish the same thing on others? 

Understanding some of the reasons why our brains are so quick to latch onto narratives that are unfounded is key to trying to correct our own misconceptions and help others to do the same. In addition to his monopoly experiment, researcher Richard Piff has also found a lot of gross, if unsurprising, evidence that rich people are ruder, less charitable, and more likely to break the law. The hypothesis is that a life of privilege is also a bubble that removes people from their empathy and compassion. But, crucially, he also found that this behavior is malleable. In another experiment, after watching a brief video about childhood poverty, those who saw themselves as rich were just as likely to help someone in distress in the lab as those who saw themselves as poor. These “psychological interventions” take people who are otherwise self-sufficient and remind them of community, cooperation, and other values that engender compassion.

While you, dear reader, may not be in a position to sit Jeff Bezos down in front of a video about childhood poverty, you can do your best to be responsible for cultivating your own compassion—this is the kind of personal responsibility that is truly important. In the same way that exposure to other people’s problems can make us harder and more impatient, it can also make us more compassionate, if we approach these experiences with a more open mind. I was a big reader, thanks to my parents and retired English teacher grandmother. Like many avid readers who smuggled flashlights under their blankets to read late into the night, I viewed novels as transformational and transportive experiences. It turns out that readinglike the short video from the “can rich assholes be reformed” experiment actually does transform us, making us more empathetic. The part of your brain that infers others’ thoughts and feelings lights up like a Christmas tree when you read (evidence suggests that this is form agnostic, so don’t let people make you feel bad if you prefer watching Buffy or playing Dragon Age to reading Proust).

To exercise that muscle, you can always try reading about the experiences of real people, like Vanessa Solivan, a home health aide and mother of three who spent years as part of the  growing demographic of the “working homeless,” people whoastonishinglyhave someplace to work but no place to live. A New York Times piece describes the difficult circumstances of her upbringing, as well as her current job and how she attempts to afford to live. Her job doesn’t pay nearly enough to lift her above the poverty line, and additional assistance she might receive from one government program cuts her eligibility for another. The more we can vividly picture the circumstances that might leave someone destitute, the harder we can fight against the instinct to attribute destitution to character rather than, just maybe, circumstance. 

When I see a car go speeding by or do something foolish, I still hate it when someone yells at them. What if the driver is just a beaver, desperate to find the sound of running water before their entire world drains away?

PS—Beavers eat their own excrement to make the most of their extremely fiber-rich and difficult to digest meals. You won’t catch a beaver asking for handouts when they can get by with assouts (their asses smell like raspberry and vanilla. Castoreum is extracted from sacs near their tails and used in perfumes and is still (rarely) used as food flavoring. I learned it so you have to learn it, too). Beaver facts!

Private vs Public Surveillance: Reflections on Edward Snowden’s Personal Record

Perhaps the only uncontroversial thing that one can say about Edward Snowden is that he is a figure who inspires an almost unique degree of controversy. Since he first rose to international prominence in 2013, prominent detractors of the former-NSA-employee-turned-whistleblower have described him as, among other things, a “traitor,” “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison,” a “coward,” a “dutiful courtier” of the Russian government, “China’s useful idiot,” a “cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood,” a “weasel,” and —perhaps most brutally—a foreign “spy” who deserves to be “executed.” His supporters, by contrast, have labelled him a “role model,” “the John Brown of the national security state,” a “brilliant, humble, and idealistic” individual, a “patriot,” and a “hero.”

Reviews of Snowden’s memoir, Permanent Record (2019), have been similarly, and predictably, polarised. To give just one example: in a withering review of the book for The Wall Street Journal entitled “A Hero in His Own Mind,” Barton Swaim lambasted Snowden for writing “a whiny and muddled indictment of the US government,” before criticising the book for being “suffused with the author’s pubescent arrogance”—a claim ostensibly contradicted by a review of the book by Janine Gibson, published in the world’s other major business newspaper, The Financial Times, which claimed that “even those still shrilly insisting [Snowden] is a traitor […] will have to concede this book reveals no Narcissus.”

For the purposes of this article, I wish to remain neutral on the subject of Snowden’s character, as well as on the issue of his alleged heroism or treachery. The reason for this is simple: these concerns are irrelevant to the main topic that I wish to discuss here, namely, (some of) the specific—and, I feel, thus far largely overlooked—claims that Snowden makes in his book pertaining to mass surveillance. More specifically, regardless of whether you think Snowden is a traitorous, pubescent narcissist or a humble, idealistic national hero, we can all surely agree that the claims Snowden makes in his book may well still be worth discussing—and, as I hope to show, they definitely are worth discussing.

First, though, let me begin by presenting (what I regard as) a distillation of the views of many liberal (or libertarian)-minded journalists who have written on the Snowden leaks over the last few years:

Private tech companiesamong them Google and Facebookhave for many years been collecting data from their users which the U.S. government has illegitimately demanded access to, and used, for its own nefarious ends, among them mass (warrantless) surveillance, monitoring, and control. Not only is such government abuse unconstitutional violating as it does the Fourth Amendment, which protects U.S. citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures”but it is also immoral, violating as it does citizens’ inalienable right to privacy, a right that is absolutely essential for human flourishing and societal well-being. Moreover, the appropriate way to combat these government abuses is to force the U.S. government to renounce its mass surveillance programs, and also to pressure private companies into not collaborating with the U.S. (or, indeed, any other) government to similar such ends.

Although several journalists have, to varying degrees of explicitness, defended something close to this viewpoint over the last few years, perhaps the most overt proponent of this position is the American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was also closely involved in reporting on the original Snowden archive (and who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his work). In the recorded Q&A immediately after his 2014 TED Talk “Why Privacy Matters,” Greenwald was asked by the event moderator: “I’m wondering, for you personally, what is the endgame? At what point will you think, ‘Well, actually, we have succeeded in moving the dial’ [with regard to combatting the dangers of mass surveillance]?”

Greenwald responds as follows:

Well, I mean, the endgame for me as a journalist is very simple, which is to make sure that every single [Snowden] document that is newsworthy and ought to be disclosed ends up being disclosed and that secrets that should never have been kept in the first place end up uncovered. To me that’s the essence of journalism and that’s what I am committed to doing. As somebody who finds mass surveillance odious for all the reasons I’ve just talked about and a lot more, I look at this as work that will never end until governments around the world are no longer able to subject entire populations to monitoring and surveillance unless they convince some court, or some entity, that that person is someone who has actually done something wrong. To me, that’s the way that privacy can be rejuvenated. (Emphasis added.)

In summary, then, Greenwald and similarly-minded journalists would appear to believe that: (1) government mass surveillance programs are both illegal and deeply unethical, violating as they do people’s legal and moral right to privacy; (2) such programs should consequently be discontinued as a matter of both legal and moral principle; (3) by discontinuing such government practices, privacy will be preserved, and perhaps even “rejuvenated,” as an essential legal and moral right.

I shall not attempt to dispute claims (1) and (2) here, for the straightforward reason that I find them to be almost indisputably true. (If you do disagree with them, however, then I urge you to watch the rest of Greenwald’s TED Talk.) That is, I too find government mass surveillance programs to be both deeply unethical and, at least in the United States, unquestionably illegal; and I, too, think that they should be discontinued. Rather, my quarrel here is with claim (3): that is, I do not think that privacy—or, for that matter, other related inalienable rights, such as liberty—can be “rejuvenated” merely by forcing the government to renounce its use of mass surveillance programs.

Why do I disagree with this claim? The answer is simple: for the very reasons that Snowden himself mentions in his book. More specifically, I agree with Snowden’s assertion, made near the end of his book, that an effective global resistance to mass surveillance will require a radical mobilization against not just the government, but also against the private sector and its own, equally tyrannical use of mass surveillance techniques. As Snowden writes:

[I]t becomes ever clearer to me that the American legal resistance to mass surveillance [is] just the beta phase of what has to be an international opposition movement, fully implemented across both governments and [the] private sector. (Emphasis added.) 

Such a claim might well seem surprising to some. After all, it has become fashionable in some media circles to portray Snowden as a libertarian, in the quintessentially American sense of the word: that is, as someone who sees almost ubiquitous government malfeasance, but almost invariably turns a blind eye to the equally pernicious behaviour of private companies. Thus, for instance, in her review of Snowden’s book for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore, a Professor of American History at Harvard University—after excoriating Snowden on a variety of ad hominem grounds (e.g., mocking his allegedly “pale and bleary-eyed” appearance, and even suggesting at one point that he suffers from “arrested development”)—criticizes Snowden for apparently failing to understand that it was private companies, as opposed to the U.S. government, that were primarily responsible for turning Snowden’s beloved, anonymity-guaranteeing internet of the 1990s into the corporatized semi-dystopia that we have today:

Google, Facebook, and Amazon know far, far more about most Americans than the N.S.A. does. But Snowden came to believe that the forces that ruined the Internet of his boyhood were less the forces of libertarianism that left corporations unchecked, giving rise to endless forms of capture, tracking, mining, and manipulation, than the forces of government that, under the expansive authority of the 2001 Patriot Act, made the Internet a place where it was impossible to be unknown and ungoverned. He wanted to end that game.

Snowden, however, explicitly disavows this view in the preface to his book:

If most of what people wanted to do online was to be able to tell their family, friends, and strangers what they were up to, and to be told what their family, friends, and strangers were up to in return, then all companies had to do was figure out how to put themselves in the middle of those social exchanges and turn them into profit. This was the beginning of surveillance capitalism, and the end of the Internet as I knew it. (Emphasis added.)

He continues:

The promise of convenience led people to exchange their personal [web]sites—which demanded constant and laborious upkeep—for a Facebook page and a Gmail account. The appearance of ownership was easy to mistake for the reality of it. Few of us understood it at the time, but none of the things that we’d go on to share would belong to us anymore. The successors to the e-commerce companies that had failed because they couldn’t find anything we were interested in buying now had a new product to sell.

That new product was Us.

Our attention, our activities, our locations, our desires—everything about us that we revealed, knowingly or not, was being surveilled and sold in secret, so as to delay the inevitable feeling of violation that is, for most of us, coming only now. And this surveillance would go on to be actively encouraged, and even funded by an army of governments greedy for the vast volume of intelligence they would gain.

Thus, Snowden does more than simply point out that private companies were primarily responsible for destroying the early, predominantly non-corporatized version of the internet.  He explicitly states that the business model of private companies (“surveillance capitalism,” which Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff defines as the inexorable mining, analysis, and reselling of people’s personal data by private companies for profit) is a human and societal menace: it not only turns “Us” into a “product,” but it “inevitably” leads to a (feeling of) “violation” of our very selves.

Such a reference to private companies’ nefarious behaviour is hardly an isolated one on Snowden’s part. Indeed, his book is repeatedly critical of the private tech sector’s machinations—and not only when they pertain to the issue of surveillance. Thus, for instance, Snowden fiercely denounces the way in which, since 9/11, broad swathes of the U.S. federal government have been privatized by “greedy” companies “for whom the federal government [is] less the ultimate authority than the ultimate client;” he despairs at the perverse incentives created by the ‘revolving door’ policy between senior members of the public and private American intelligence community (which in turn leads him to characterize government “contracting” as nothing more than “governmentally assisted corruption”); and he is deeply angered by the various mechanisms by which the federal government offers hidden or implicit subsidies to the private sector at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer (e.g., by paying for expensive background checks on its workers, who soon after passing such checks often take up higher-paying positions at a private company).

However, one comment that Snowden makes in his book about the private sector is, I think, particularly worth dwelling upon. It is a moment precipitated by Snowden coming across a ‘smart’ (i.e., internet-equipped) refrigerator in a Best Buy store:

I was convinced the only reason that thing was Internet-equipped was so that it could report back to its manufacturer about its owner’s usage and about any other household data that was obtainable. The manufacturer, in turn, would monetize that data by selling it. And we were supposed to pay for the privilege. 

I wondered what the point was of my getting so worked up over government surveillance if my friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens were more than happy to invite corporate surveillance into their homes, allowing themselves to be tracked while browsing in their pantries as efficiently as if they were browsing the Web. It would still be another half decade before the domotics revolution, before “virtual assistants” like Amazon Echo and Google Home were welcomed into the bedroom and placed proudly on nightstands to record and transmit all activity within range, to log all habits and preferences (not to mention fetishes and kinks), which would then be developed into advertising algorithms and converted into cash. The data we generate just by living—or just by letting ourselves be surveilled while living—would enrich private enterprise and impoverish our private existence in equal measure. If government surveillance was having the effect of turning the citizen into a subject, at the mercy of state power, then corporate surveillance was turning the consumer into a product, which corporations sold to other corporations, data brokers, and advertisers. (Emphasis added.)

Snowden can, I think, be usefully construed as asking two subtly distinct questions here: (1) Why should we care about government surveillance when private surveillance is just as ubiquitous and pernicious as (if not more ubiquitous and pernicious than) government surveillance? (2) Given that private surveillance is ostensibly accepted by large segments of the world’s population, then why shouldn’t we also accept the fact that the NSA and other government agencies are collecting and storing similarly enormous troves of our data? In other words: If people are apparently happy to allow unaccountable private institutions to spy on them, then why shouldn’t we let the government—which is, at least in theory, a partially accountable institution—do the same?

Interestingly, and somewhat strangely, Snowden never goes on to answer these questions directly anywhere in the book. Nevertheless, I think both questions are worth reflecting upon and, indeed, categorically answering.

The first question can, I think, be fairly easily responded to. We should care about government surveillance for the same reason we should care about, and ultimately attempt to address, other bad things: because they’re bad, and because they’re addressable. (Consider: Should I, as a British citizen, not care about the problem of adult poverty in the United Kingdom simply because child poverty is a similarly serious, if not more serious, problem?) The large-scale illegal surveillance, monitoring, and mining of people’s data is both a legal and a moral crime; for that reason, and that reason alone, one should attempt to address it.

The second question, however, is not so straightforwardly answered. One preliminary, conceptual point worth making, however, is that even if it were true that many people were happy to forfeit their right to privacy by being surveilled by private companies (or by the government), this does not by itself entail that everyone in society should be compelled to accede to such surveillance—in much the same way that many people’s apparent willingness to forfeit their right to free speech should not thereby entail that everyone in society should be compelled to surrender their own free speech rights.

Furthermore, the empirical assumptions underlying the question may be legitimately questioned. In particular, it appears that most people do not, in fact, accept the legitimacy of private (or public) surveillance, but rather are, according to various measures, largely ignorant of it. Thus, a 2016 Pew Poll noted, “When it comes to their own role in managing their personal information, most [U.S.] adults are not sure what information is being collected [by private companies] or how it is being used.” A more recent November 2019 Pew Poll corroborates this, noting that 78 percent of U.S. adults say that they “understand very little or nothing about what the government does with the data it collects”, while “59 percent say the same about the data companies collect”. (Moreover, 63 percent of U.S. adults say they “understand very little or nothing at all about the laws and regulations that are currently in place to protect their data privacy.”) Indeed, such ignorance apparently extends even to senior U.S. policy makers: one famous illustration of this occurred in 2018, when Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) unwittingly revealed in a Senate hearing that he understood precisely nothing about Facebook’s business model by bluntly asking the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, how Facebook makes money:

HATCH: How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?

ZUCKERBERG (pausing briefly): Senator, we run ads.

HATCH: I see.

In addition to ignorance, however, a large number of Americans feel a deep sense of distrust towards both the government and private companies when it comes to issues pertaining to online surveillance and privacy. According to a November 2019 Pew Poll, 79 percent of Americans “report being concerned about the way their data is used by companies”, while 64 percent report the same level of concern about the government’s use of their data (suggesting that, if anything, Americans are more concerned about private surveillance than they are about government surveillance). Furthermore, a large majority of Americans  (57 percent) claim that they are “not very or not at all confident” that “companies follow what their privacy policies say they will do with users’ personal data.”

Any mention of privacy policies, however, inevitably generates the obvious (libertarian) rejoinder: Don’t people agree to privacy policies or “terms-of-service agreements” when they purchase products from private companies, or use “free” services online? And doesn’t this, in turn, imply that they ultimately do consent to being monitored by the private companies whose products or services they use? 

Although it is of course true that, in a de jure sense, people may be said to “agree” to such monitoring, there is, in fact, virtually no coherent sense in which they may be said to “agree” in a de facto one. As the Pew Poll notes, although “97 percent of Americans say they are ever asked to approve privacy policies,” only 22 percent of Americans “always (9 percent) or often (13 percent) read a company’s privacy policy before agreeing to it;” indeed, fully 36 percent of U.S. adults affirm that they “never read a company’s privacy policy before agreeing to it.” Moreover, as the poll points out: 

[T]he practice of reading privacy policies doesn’t necessarily guarantee thoroughness. Among adults who say they ever read privacy policies before agreeing to their terms and conditions, only a minority22 percentsay they read them all the way through before agreeing to their terms and conditions.

More importantly, however, it is worth stressing that even if the desire to read terms-of-service agreements or privacy policies existed among tech users, the actual reading of such terms of service agreements is, at least in any practical sense, impossible. As Zuboff notes in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:

Scholars point out that these digital documents [“terms-of-service agreements”] are excessively long and complex in part to discourage users from actually reading the terms, safe in the knowledge that most courts have upheld the legitimacy of [such] agreements despite the obvious lack of meaningful consent. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts admitted that he ‘doesn’t read the computer fine print.’ Adding insult to injury, terms of service can be altered unilaterally by the firm at any time, without specific user knowledge or consent, and the terms typically implicate other companies (partners, suppliers, marketers, advertising intermediaries, etc.) without stating or accepting responsibility for their terms of service. These ‘contracts’ impose an unwinnable infinite regress upon the user that law professor Nancy Kim describes as ‘sadistic.’

Moreover, with regard to privacy policies, Zuboff writes:

Even the former Federal Commission Chairperson Jon Leibowitz publicly stated, ‘We all agree that consumers don’t read privacy policies.’ In 2008 two Carnegie Mellon professors calculated that a reasonable reading of all of the privacy policies that one encounters in a year would require 76 full workdays at a national opportunity cost of $781 billion. The numbers are much higher today.

Indeed, it is largely for these reasons that Zuboff, later on in the book, labels any attempt to read such policies as “a forced march towards madness or surrender.”

In summary, then, the appropriate answer to Snowden’s two questions should be as follows: (1) people should care about government surveillance because it’s bad, and because we can do something about it; (2) people don’t accept the legitimacy of private surveillance (in fact, they are deeply concerned about it) largely because: (i) they don’t know much about it, and (ii) the current institutional and legal framework is set up in such a way as to virtually guarantee that they can’t much know about it. 

There is one other, major difference between public and private surveillance that is worth dwelling upon—one which Snowden has alluded to before, most notably in a much-watched interview with the comedian John Oliver:

OLIVER: Why did you do this [i.e. become a whistleblower]?

SNOWDEN: The NSA has the greatest surveillance capabilities that we’ve ever seen. What they will argue is that they don’t use this for nefarious purposes against American citizens. In some ways that’s true. But the real problem is that they’re using these capabilities to make us vulnerable to them and then saying: ‘While I have a gun pointed at your head, I’m not going to pull the trigger. Trust me.’

Though the analogy here is not perfectly apposite—prior to Snowden’s leaking of the government documents , U.S. intelligence officials categorically denied that it even had such a “pointed gun” in the first place—Snowden’s intended meaning is clear: it is the potential use of our data by the government (in order to manipulate, coerce, and control) which he finds especially troubling. However – and, as we have seen, as Snowden himself suggests in his book—we know that private companies not only potentially engage in such behaviour, but actively do engage in it; indeed, the very soul of their business models consists in monitoring, analyzing, and manipulating their users’ behavior in order to sell them ads. 

This fact is openly admitted to by senior tech insiders. For instance, an Amnesty International report published in November last year (entitled “Surveillance Giants: How the business model of Google and Facebook threatens human rights”) quotes Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and advisor to Mark Zuckerberg:  “The business model depends on advertising, which in turn depends on manipulating the attention of users so they see more ads. (Emphasis added). Or, as Zuboff puts it:

“[Surveillance capitalism is based on] economic principles that instrumentalise and control human experience to systematically and predictably shape behaviour towards others’ profitable ends.” (Emphasis added). 

It is precisely for this reason that, arguably, private surveillance is more pernicious than public surveillance: private tech companies, unlike the government, are not only heavily incentivized to monitor your behavior, but to actively change it as well. (It is of course true that governments, to greater and lesser degrees, attempt to manipulate the behaviour of their citizens. But, certainly in the West, this ability pales in comparison to the power of private firms like Google and Facebook.) Moreover, as the above-mentioned Amnesty report attests, there is a mountain of evidence that such a business model is inherently detrimental to human rights and (more broadly) well-being: as well as violating people’s inherent right to privacy, it leads to increases in stress, a greater inability to concentrate, shorter attention spans, and many other deleterious consequences besides.

As already mentioned, Snowden believes that resistance to mass surveillance will require a radical overhaul not just of the government, but also of the private sector. In fact, at one point in his book he even appears to suggest that what is required is a whole-scale change in the business models of these major tech companies: 

Ultimately, the privacy of our data depends on the ownership of our data [rather than its ownership by private tech companies.]. There is no property less protected, and yet no property more private. (Emphasis added).

But although this idea of “data ownership” is an intriguing one—and one that many (including myself) would regard as necessary—the details need spelling out: What, exactly, would such ownership consist in? What would it entail? Would “ownership” of one’s data be something that one could legitimately sell, or buy? Should, for example, parents “own” their children’s data? What about one’s partner’s? If, say, someone I know happens to see me enter a store one afternoon, can I be said to “own” this datum? If so, how, and in what exact sense? If not, then what distinguishes legitimate forms of data ownership from illegitimate ones?

Snowden, unfortunately, fails to elaborate on any of these questions in his book. Indeed, similar failures of elaboration are, to my mind, the book’s central weakness. One example of this has already been mentioned, when Snowden did not answer the (crucial) questions that he himself effectively raised after seeing the ‘smart’ refrigerator in a Best Buy store. Another is when Snowden explicitly equates, with no argumentation or explanation, prior conceptions of liberty with our contemporary understanding of privacy (“that [which] during the American Revolution was called ‘liberty’ [is] during the Internet Revolution… called ‘privacy’”). Another error, arguably, is Snowden’s failure to explicitly and directly compare and contrast the perniciousness of public and private surveillance anywhere in his book. (We know that he thinks both forms of surveillance are bad; but which, for him, are worse? And why?) Finally, to my mind, the book lacks a sufficient discussion of the extent to which, at least when it comes to private surveillance, privacy is really the core liberty being threatened, as opposed to, say, freedom of attention (as, e.g., James Williams and others have argued).

Nevertheless, the central point remains: Snowden is not the naive American libertarian that many in the media and academia have often assumed him to be. Rather, he is a deeply thoughtful individual who is well aware that “surveillance capitalists” were responsible for destroying the internet of his youth; who is more than familiar with the fact that private companies, through their relentless search for data capture and analysis, are inexorably turning us into a “product;” and who is obviously deeply concerned about the fact that such companies control us, manipulate us, and, indeed, even “violate” our innermost sense of who (and what) we are. More generally, and perhaps most crucially, Snowden is highly conscious of the fact that both the public and the private sector currently pose serious and imminent threats to privacy and freedom. 

Snowden, in short, has a lot to say of interesting things to say about surveillance in his book—and not only (as one may, perhaps, have expected) about government surveillance. Rather than simply slander or unthinkingly lionize him, I suggest that we do something else entirely; something which, in my opinion, too many commentators, journalists, and indeed citizens have for too long refrained from doing: we should actually listen to him. 

Why I Love the Post Office (And You Should, Too)

The first letter I ever wrote was not sent through the United States Postal Service. Instead, I slipped it under the door of my parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night. Dear Mom and Dad, I wrote, I really really really really really want a dog. I’ll walk it and feed it and take care of it. Similar letters were found under their door many nights after, until they brought Bear home. That’s the power of letter writing.

But I learned how to write real letters, which I addressed and stamped and put in a blue box, during my first summer at sleepaway camp. My mom packed stationery in my trunk, and I first used letters to tell my grandparents what I was up to all summer—becoming a better swimmer, and folk dancing during Shabbat, mostly—and asking my parents to send me stuff I needed, which was really just candy to share with my bunkmates. Every summer thereafter I wrote letters, fewer to my family and more to my friends. I wrote to my best friend Zoe and told her I missed summer at home, even though I loved camp (there was no word for it back then, but if I was writing to her now, I’d say I had FOMO). She wrote back: “everything is boring. I walked to Little Dipper with Jennie Snyder and I got a cone of moose tracks.” We weren’t allowed cell phones or computers at camp, and mundane as our letters probably were, each one was like a message on AIM and a text message and a whisper, combined and magnified. But of course, Zoe and I still write to each other today, from 8 miles apart: when the grocery store is out of chai tea, she stuffs tea bags until the envelope is bursting at its seams; I send her son a book called “Delivering Your Mail: A Book About Mail Carriers.” She tells me he reads it all the time.

The United States Postal Service, as we know it today, didn’t exist until 1970, when postal workers in New York City went on an 8 day wildcat strike. Prior to their successful strike, postal workers were extremely underpaid, earning only slightly over $6,000 a year to start, and many survived on food stamps and other government assistance to fill the gaps. The annual starting salary for postal workers was 27 percent lower than for New York City sanitation workers and less than 50 percent for police and transport workers. Even veteran workers with decades of service made less than $8,500. It was difficult for postal workers, especially ones who lived in cities with higher living costs, to support their families. And even though they would get sporadic raises, they got nothing at all between 1967 and 1969; in the same two year period, Congress raised its own pay 41 percent. Like all federal employees, postal workers had no collective bargaining rights, and it was illegal for them to strike. (It still is.) To get raises, they were forced to basically beg Congress—and used to joke that they didn’t have collective bargaining, they had “collective begging.” 

As postal workers’ rage toward Congress grew, the world around them was on fire. By the late 1960s, the movement against the Vietnam War had exploded. Millions of people were in the streets fighting to end the war and the draft. The Civil Rights Movement had also gained steam—by 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed, banning discrimination in the housing market. And in the streets, young Black people were rioting and protesting, demanding jobs and an end to police violence and structural racism. The Black Power movement was also on the rise, challenging non-violence and demanding the right to self-determination. Many postal workers were Black, as white workers left for better jobs in the 1950s and 1960s; the movement for Black power in the streets resonated with these Black people at work. In addition, the era bore witness to an ongoing wave of rank-and-file rebellions in private- and public-sector unions across the country. In New York City, transportation workers went on strike in 1966. Two years later, sanitation workers and teachers walked out. Postal workers in New York saw their neighbors and friends stand up and fight back—and win. These movements and victories paved the way for postal workers, who may not have gone on strike without them.

The postal worker strike of March 1970 lasted over a week and stopped the mail in New York City, electrifying postal workers all over the country. It was the first major strike against the government, ever. Immediately, the union was ordered to go back to work, with the threat of an organizational fine of $100,000 per day looming over them. The stakes were high: elected union officers hid from subpoenas; veteran letter carriers were told they’d lose their military pensions; and each striking worker was staring down a $1,000 personal fine, a year in jail, and automatic and permanent job loss. But the strike erupted because workers were so fed up—beyond poor wages, postal workers had been forced to deal with uninhabitable conditions at their stations, and harassment from management. The workers were ready; no threat would stop them. Within a few days, postal workers in New York were joined by 200,000 postal workers in 13 states, 200 cities and towns, and 671 postal stations. The striking workers created a complete and total crisis for the entire country. Mail in New York City was between 98-99 percent shut down, and was slowed elsewhere as well. And the strike was a catastrophe for the ruling class, too: checks, stock certificates, and bonds couldn’t be delivered to Wall Street, causing the stock market to fall. After six days, President Nixon declared the strike a national emergency and sent 19,000 members of the National Guard to New York to sort and deliver mail.

Nixon and the National Guard failed. They underestimated the importance and power of postal workers, and the role they play in our society. Postal workers are letter carriers, sorters, and clerks, yes, but their job encompasses so much more than that. Letter carriers can often be the only human contact that some of our neighbors have—they’re a consistent, friendly face; a constant in a lonely world. And while letter carriers are known to fear dogs (thousands of workers are attacked each year), many carry dog biscuits in their trucks for all the dogs on their routes. Letter carriers are part of our communities, and their presence is felt far beyond the postage they sell or the mail they deliver. But the importance of the mail they deliver can’t be overstated: in 2019, USPS delivered 1.2 billion prescriptions, including nearly 100 percent of Veterans Affairs’ prescriptions. And because of USPS’s mandate to deliver to every home and business in this country, no matter how remote (the unofficial motto is “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”), they have to get creative. Workers deliver mail by plane, bicycle, snowmobile, and even donkey. Imagine Amazon doing the same for only 55 cents per letter.

After the striking workers transformed the postal service, a job at USPS became one that anyone could be proud of—and they are. The postal service employs over 600,000 people, most of whom are union members. More than one-third of workers are women, 18 percent are veterans, and a quarter are Black. The people who make up this diverse workforce are working class heroes, and they’re under attack. 

One of these heroes is my mother.

In 2008, millions of Americans lost their jobs in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. My mom was one of them. A successful loan officer at a bank that no longer exists, she and my dad gave me and my siblings everything we needed, and much more. After she was laid off, she quickly became a limousine driver, and after that, a letter carrier. She’s not sentimental like me; she doesn’t write many letters. When she asks what I want for my birthday, I always say the same thing: a heartfelt card, please. But usually I just get a pre-filled greeting card, with only “XOXOXO Love, Mom and Fran” (her partner) in her handwriting. She likes being useful, though, and she likes helping people. She’d often thought about being a letter carrier, believing that it would be nice to walk outside all day, delivering letters and packages to the people who need them. Plus, she had worked for the federal government before, and she knew it was a good union job. 

The good job that my mom was after at the post office is hanging on by a thread. All letter carriers start as an associate carrier, which is a kind of temporary or part time worker. My mom was hired as a rural carrier associate in 2011. She was an RCA for six years, making $18 an hour. She received no paid sick time or vacation, and no health or retirement benefits. It took her six years to become a regular carrier—and she now makes $25 per hour, with benefits. Even though she started at $18 an hour, new RCAs these days start at $13. This is not uncommon in postal worker union contracts, or union contracts anywhere for that matter. Tiered wage systems separate new workers from more senior workers, and diminish possibilities for solidarity and insead open the door for resentment. In their arbitrariness, they emphasize the power of management, and it’s that much harder for workers to fight back.

But USPS workers are beloved. The postal service is viewed favorably by 91 percent of people in this country, no doubt because of the clerks that patiently help customers pick the right envelope, and the letter carriers that have the same route for decades. Floyd Martin, a Georgia letter carrier who had the same route for 20 years, was beloved by the families he delivered to. He always had food for the cats and lollipops for the kids; even a long-time customer suffering with dementia remembered him. When he retired, the families on his route threw him a party and started a GoFundMe for his dream trip to Hawaii. It reached its original goal in two hours, raising nearly $33,000 in four days. My mom has only had her current route for a year and a half, but her people leave her vegetables from their gardens and gifts during the holiday season. One family gives her tootsie roll pops; another replenishes her dog biscuit supply (she gives their dog a treat every day). She’ll work until 2023 so she’s vested in her pension. She’ll retire at 69 years old, and she’s lucky.

My mom is not a political person. She wants to save the postal service, but isn’t quite sure how. She goes back and forth about getting involved in her union; she’s insecure and she’s afraid she won’t do a good job for the other members. I try to remind her that when she first started delivering mail, her route would take her 12 hours. Practice makes perfect; it’s why the National Guard was unable to process and deliver the mail in 1970. Mail work is skilled work, just like organizing. My mom had hoped that the pandemic would renew our country’s commitment to programs and services like the post office, because of how equitable and important USPS is—and because of how many people depend on it, and how many love it.

Of course, she was wrong, and we’re all the worse for it. The postal service has been under attack by Republicans (and many Democrats) for years now. In 2006, Congress passed the bipartisan Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which requires the USPS to have enough money to pay retiree health care benefits seventy-five years in advance—i.e., before many of these future postal workers are even born. It should go without saying, but this is unheard of for any other public agency, and of course for any private business. The Act serves no social usefulness; its only goal is to make it appear that the postal service is failing, so that the general public will turn its back on the USPS, seeing it as a failure or a tax burden. Historically, the USPS has funded itself through the sale of postage and other products, not through tax dollars. But it has struggled to stay afloat because of both the 2006 Act and the ubiquity of the internet (i.e. many people now pay bills online and substitute emails for letters), and has had to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury Department. And now the postal service is in trouble—in large part because of the Postal Accountability Act—and it needs a government bailout. 

But the government is not interested in saving the USPS—they want it to fail so they have an excuse to privatize it. The postal service is a model social benefit for every working person in this country, and we have the imagination to dream beyond it. Almost every single zip code has a post office. What if these offices had more than just stamps and envelopes? Post offices could offer banking services and public internet. They could become community centers where people could go to charge their phone, or wait out a hot day in air conditioning. These additional postal services would be available and accessible to every single person in this country, including and especially the very poor. A destroyed or privatized post office will never be improved or expanded, certainly not in a way that will be accessible for all to use. And if UPS or FedEx (or God forbid, Amazon) are our only options for sending and receiving mail, we can kiss affordable rural delivery goodbye—along with the dream of postal banking, or any other expanded public services.

While the attacks on the postal service have been ongoing for decades, they’re in the news now more than ever. People believe Trump is trying to complete the ruin of the USPS in order to steal the election, and I’m sure they’re right. In the spring, Trump appointed Louis DeJoy, a businessman who has never sorted mail, sold stamps, or delivered mail, as the postmaster general. It’s the first time in 20 years that the postmaster general hasn’t previously worked for the postal service. Like Nixon and the national guard, DeJoy knows nothing about the mail. He has removed some sorting machines, ended late trips, and cut back on overtime, with plans to eliminate it entirely. It is important to understand that while this may in part be about the election, it’s really about—and has always been about—destroying the postal service as a popular institution and as an employer of steady, union jobs. 

My mom hates Trump and wants to see him defeated. So do I. But her two most immediate concerns about the post office are that 1) they won’t be able to provide the best service possible, and 2) that they won’t go back to the way they were. She fears that it will be too late, and the forces of privatization will destroy it. My fears about the post office start as sweeping, and then zoom in: Jeff Bezos growing his power and wealth; 600,000 union jobs gone; my mom losing her job and her future pension. But I also think about all the letters I’ve ever written, no matter how small they may seem: to Zoe and her son, to almost every lover I’ve ever had (or wanted to have), to my on-again, off-again pen pal Michael. And I think about every person who has made it possible for me to do so, who has sold me stamps, processed the envelopes, and delivered the letters; and how they’ve done the same for thousands of other people, enabling connection and love and even good health, every day but Sunday. I think about Floyd Martin, and how deeply he touched people by just delivering their mail. And I realize that for us, it’s not just about the mail—and for Trump and DeJoy and the right wing, it isn’t either. Defending the post office isn’t just about making sure seniors get their medication, or about protecting good union jobs, although it’s those things too. It’s about deciding that we want a society based on human connection instead of a society based on profit and atomized human misery—and it’s about being willing to fight for it.