[Plura-list] How America's oligarchs lull us the be-your-own-boss fairy tale; Come see me on tour!

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Fri Feb 16 16:31:44 EST 2024

Read today's issue online at: https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/16/narrative-capitalism/

Today's links

* How America's oligarchs lull us the be-your-own-boss fairy tale: Temporarily embarrassed millionaires aren't born, they're made.

* Come see me on tour!: LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Calgary, Phoenix, Portland, Providence, Boston, New York City, Toronto, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Chicago, Amherst, Torino, Tartu.

* Hey look at this: Delights to delectate.

* This day in history: 2004, 2009, 2014, 2019

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading


👩🏻‍🏫 How America's oligarchs lull us the be-your-own-boss fairy tale

Capitalism is a vibes-based system. Sure, we all know about Keynes's "Animal Spirits" that see "bulls" and "bears" vying to set the market's future, but beyond that, there's just a hell of a lot of *narrative*.

Writing for *The American Prospect*, Adam M Lowenstein reviews two books that tell the histories of the stories that are used to sell American capitalism to the American people - the stories that turn workers into "temporarily embarrassed millionaires":


The first of these books is *Taming the Octopus: The Long Battle for the Soul of the Corporation*, by Kyle Edward Williams, a kind of pre-history of "woke capitalism":


*Taming* is a history of the low-water marks for Big Business's reputation in America, and how each was overcome through PR campaigns that declared a turning point in which business leaders would pursue the common good, even at the expense of their shareholders' interests.

The story starts in the 1950s, when DuPont and other massive firms had gained a well-deserved reputation as rapacious profit-generation machines that "alienated workers and pushed around small businessmen, investors, and consumers." This prompted DuPont's PR chief, Harold Brayman, to write a memo called "The Attack on Bigness," where he set out a plan to sell America on a new cuddly image for corporate giants.

For Brayman, the problem was that corporate execs were too shy about telling their social inferiors about all the good that businesses did for them: "The businessman is normally reluctant to talk out loud. He frequently shuns the spotlight and is content with plugging his wares, not himself."

This was the starting gun for a charm offensive by American big business that included IBM president Thomas Watson Jr ("I think there is a world market for about five computers") going on a speaking tour organized by McKinsey & Co, where he told audiences that his company's billion dollar annual profits had convinced it to assume "responsibilities for the broader public welfare."

This set the template for a nationwide mania of "business statesmanship" that *Fortune* celebrated with an editorial announcing "a great transformation, of which the world as a whole is as yet unaware" that put the "profit motive...on its last leg."

*Fortune* then spent the next seventy years recycling this announcement, every time the tide went out on business's popularity. In 2019, *Fortune* platformed IBM president Ginni Rometty for an announcement that the company was orienting its priorities to the public good: "It’s a question of whether society trusts you or not. We need society to accept what it is that we do."

The occasion for Rometty's quote was a special package on the Trump tax-cuts, a trillion-dollar gift to American big business, which lobbyists for the Business Roundtable celebrated with an announcement that American capitalism would now serve "stakeholders" (not just shareholders). *Fortune* celebrated this "change" as "fundamental and profound."

Fast forward five years and corporate leaders are still telling stories, this time about "stakeholder capitalism" and "ESG" - the dread "woke capitalism" that has right-wing swivel-eyed loons running around, hair afire, declaring the end of capitalism.

For Williams and Lowenstein (and me), all this ESG, DEI, and responsible capitalism is just window dressing, a distraction to keep the pitchforks and torches in people's closets, and to keep the guillotines in their packaging. The right-wing is doing a mirror-world version of liberals who freak out when OpenAI claims to have built a machine that will pauperize every worker - assuming that a PR pitch is the gospel truth, and then repeating it in criticism. Criti-hype, in other words:


Think of ESG: the right is freaking out that ESG is harming shareholders by leaving hydrocarbons in the ground to appease climate-addled greenies. The reality is that ESG is barely disguised greenwashing, and it's fully compatible with burning every critter that died in the Mesozoic, Cenozoic, and lo, even the Paleozoic:


The reason this tactic is so successful is that Americans have also been sold *another* narrative: that American problems are solved by American individuals as entrepreneurs and businesspeople, not as polities or as members of a union (let alone the working class!).

This is the subject of the second book Lowenstein reviews, *One Day I’ll Work for Myself: The Dream and Delusion That Conquered America*, by Benjamin Waterhouse:


A keystone of American narrative capitalism is the idea that the USA is a nation of small businesspeople, Jeffersonian yeoman farmsteaders of the US economy. But even a cursory examination shows that the country is ruled - economically and politically - by very large firms.

Uber sells itself as a way to be your own boss ("No shifts. No boss. No limits.") - even though it's a system where the *app* is your boss, and thanks to that layer of misdirection, Uber gets to be the worst conceivable boss, while its workers have no recourse in labor law:


In labor fights, Uber represents itself as the champion of innumerable "small businesspeople" who drive its unlicensed taxis. In consumer protection fights, Amazon claims to be fighting for "small businesspeople" who sell on its platform. In privacy fights, Facebook claims to represent "small businesspeople" who buy its surveillance advertising.

But large firms are actively hostile to small firms, seeing them as small-fry to be rooked or destroyed (recall that when Amazon targeted small publishers for bankruptcy-level discounts, they called the program "The Gazelle Project" and Bezos told his executives to tackle these firms "the way a cheetah pursues a sickly gazelle").

Decades of this tale have produced "a profound shift from a shared belief that individuals might come together to solve problems, into a collective faith in individual effort." America's long love-affair with rugged individualism was weaponized in the 1970s by corporations seeking to shed their regulatory obligation to workers, customers, and the environment.

As with Big Tech today, the big business lobby held up mom-and-pop businesses as the true beneficiaries of deregulation, even as they knifed these firms. A telling anecdote comes from someone who worked for the Chamber of Commerce's magazine *Nation's Business*: when this editor pointed out that many of the magazine's subscribers were small businesspeople and asked if they could start including articles relevant to mom-and-pops, the editor in chief said, "Over my dead body."

The neoliberal era has been an unbroken string of platitudes celebrating the small business and policies that annihilate their chances against large firms. Ronald Reagan's dewy-eyed hymns to American entrepreneurship sounded nice, but what matters is that he attempted to abolish the Small Business Administration and refused to address the 20,000 attendee "White House Conference on Small Business."

In the years since, American has sacrificed its small businesses while pulling out all the stops - bailouts and tax cuts and elite bankruptcy - to keep its largest firms growing. New regulations like Dodd-Frank were neutered in the name of saving mom-and-pop shops, even though the provisions that were cut already exempted small businesses.

Today, millions of Americans are treading water in a fetid stew of LLC-poisoning, rise-and-grind, multi-level-marketing, dropshipping and gig-work, convinced that the only way to get a better life is to pull themselves up by their bootstraps:


Narrative does a lot of work here. The American economy runs on bubbles, another form of narrative capitalism. Take AI, a subject I sincerely wish I could stop hearing about, not least because I'm certain that 99% of that thinking is being wasted on whatever residue remains after the bubble pops:


AI isn't going to do your job, but its narrative may convince your boss to fire you and replace you with a bot that can't do your job. Like what happened when Air Canada hired a chatbot to answer customer inquiries and it started making shit up about bereavement discounts that the company later claimed it didn't have to honor:


This story's been all over the news for the past couple of days, but so far as I've seen, no one has pointed out the seemingly obvious inference that this chatbot probably ripped off *lots* of people. The victim here was extraordinarily persistent, chasing a refund for 10 weeks and then going to the regulator. This guy is a six-sigma self-advocate - which implies a whole bell-curve's worth of comparatively normal people who just ate the shit-sandwich Air Canada fed them.

The reason AI is a winning proposition for Air Canada isn't that it can do a customer service rep's job - it can't. But the AI is a layer of indirection - like the app that is the true boss of Uber drivers - that lets Air Canada demoralize the customers it steals from into walking away from their losses.

Nevertheless, the narrative that AI Will Change Everything Forever is powerful - more powerful than AI itself, that's for sure. Take this *Bloomberg* headline: "Nearly all wealth gained by world's rich this year comes from AI":


Dig in and you find even more narrative. The single largest beneficiary of AI stock gains last year was Mark Zuckerberg ($161B!). Zuck is American Narrative Capitalism's greatest practitioner: the guy who made billions peddling a series of lies, from "pivot to video" to "metaverse," leaping from one lie to the next just ahead of the mass stock-selloffs that wiped out lesser predators.

The Narrative Capitalism Cinematic Universe has a lot of side-plots like AI and entrepreneurship and woke capitalism, but its main narrative arc was articulated, ad nauseum, by Margaret Thatcher: "There is no alternative." This is the most important part of the story, the part that says it literally can't be otherwise. The only way to organize society is through markets, and the only way to organize markets is to leave them alone, no matter how much suffering they cause.

This is a baffling story, because it's so easily disproved. Zuck says the only way to have friends is to let him surveil you from asshole to appetite, *even though he once ran Facebook as the privacy-forward alternative to MySpace, and promised never to spy on you*:


Likewise, the business leaders - and their chorus of dutiful Renfields - who insist that monopoly is the natural and inevitable outcome of any market economy just handwave away the decades during which anti-monopoly enforcement actually kept most businesses from getting too big to fail and too big to jail.

I'm no champion of market efficiency - especially not as the best and final arbiter of social and economic questions - but when I hear my comrades repeating the Thatcherite claims that all forms of capitalism *necessarily* degrade into monopolistic quagmires, that there is no alternative, it sounds like more criti-hype.

This is a frequent point of departure during discussions of enshittification: some people dismiss the whole idea of enshittification as "just capitalism." But we had decades of digital services that either didn't degrade, or, when they did, were replaced by superior competitors with a minimum of switching costs for users who migrated from the decaying incumbent to greener pastures.

The reality is that while there are problems with all forms of capitalism, there are different *kinds* of capitalist problems, and some forms of capitalism are less harmful to working people and more capable of enacting and enforcing sound policy than others.

Enshittification is what happens when the *constraints* on the worst impulses of companies and their investors and managers are removed. When a company doesn't have competitors, when it can capture its regulators to trample our rights with impunity, when it can enlist those regulators to shut down would-be competitors who might free us from its "walled garden," and when it can fire any worker who refuses to enact harm upon the users they serve, then that company will enshittify:


A company can be made to treat you well, even if it is run by a wicked person who sees you as a mark to be fleeced - that mustache twirler just has to be constrained - by competition, regulation, self-help and labor. He may still hate you and wish you harm, but he won't be able to act on it.

As MLK said:

> It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, religion and education will have to do that, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that's pretty important also. And so that while legislation may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men. And we see this every day.


👩🏻‍🏫 Come see me on tour!

My next novel is *The Bezzle*, a high-tech ice-cold revenge thriller starring Marty Hench, a two-fisted forensic accountant, as he takes on the sleaziest scams of the first two decades of the 2000s, from hamburger-themed Ponzis to the unbelievably sleazy and evil prison-tech industry:


I'm taking Marty on the road! I'll be visiting eighteen cities between now and June, and I hope you'll come out and say hello, visit a beloved local bookseller, and maybe get a book (or two)!

21 Feb: Weller Bookworks, Salt Lake City, 1830h:

22 Feb: Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, 19h:

24 Feb: Vroman's, Pasadena, 17h, with Adam Conover (!!)

26 Feb: Third Place Books, Seattle, 19h, with Neal Stephenson (!!!)

27 Feb: Powell's, Portland, 19h:

29 Feb: Changing Hands, Phoenix, 1830h:

9-10 Mar: Tucson Festival of the Book:

13 Mar: San Francisco Public Library, details coming soon!

23 or 24 Mar: Toronto, details coming soon!

25-27 Mar: NYC and DC, details coming soon!

29-31 Mar: Wondercon Anaheim:

11 Apr: Anderson's Books, Chicago, 19h:

12 Apr: RISD Debates in AI, Providence, details coming soon!

19-21 Apr: Torino Biennale Tecnologia

2 May, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Winnipeg

5-11 May: Tartu Prima Vista Literary Festival

6-9 Jun: Media Ecology Association keynote, Amherst, NY

Calgary and Vancouver - details coming soon!


👩🏻‍🏫 Hey look at this

* Zelle Is Using My Name and Voice without My Consent https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2024/01/zelle-is-using-my-name-and-voice-without-my-consent.html

* The 2023 Hugo Awards: A Report on Censorship and Exclusion https://file770.com/the-2023-hugo-awards-a-report-on-censorship-and-exclusion/ (h/t John Scalzi)

* Has Wired Given Up On Fact Checking? Publishes Facts-Optional Screed Against Section 230 That Gets Almost Everything Wrong  https://www.techdirt.com/2024/02/15/has-wired-given-up-on-fact-checking-publishes-facts-optional-screed-against-section-230-that-gets-almost-everything-wrong/


👩🏻‍🏫 This day in history

#20yrsago Firsthand account of the gay marriage rush at San Fran city hall https://web.archive.org/web/20041010062123/http://vitanuova.loyalty.org/2004-02-15.html

#20yrsago James Joyce’s descendants are copyright jerks https://web.archive.org/web/20040624141528/http://funferal.org/mt-archive/000514.html

#15yrsago European Commission demands a single, standard phone charger https://www.telecompaper.com/news/ec-wants-one-mobile-phone-charger-for-all-brands--658155

#10yrsago AIDS deniers use bogus copyright claims to censor critical Youtube videos https://www.techdirt.com/2014/02/14/aids-denial-crazies-go-all-dmca-videos-educating-people-their-craziness/

#5yrsago Wyoming GOP Senator explains death-penalty vote by saying that being executed was good enough for Jesus, so it’s good enough for criminals https://trib.com/news/state-regional/govt-and-politics/wyoming-senate-defeats-death-penalty-repeal-bill/article_0603777b-4059-5101-ab92-3731036c4478.html

#5yrsago Despite public pledges, leading scientific journals still allow statistical misconduct and refuse to correct it https://trialsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13063-019-3173-2

#5yrsago Yacht dealers rely on Instagram “yacht influencers” to flip their wares https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/the-lonely-life-of-a-yacht-influencer

#5yrsago India’s e-waste recycling “markets” are toxic nightmares filled with child laborers https://theconversation.com/electronic-waste-is-recycled-in-appalling-conditions-in-india-110363


👩🏻‍🏫 Colophon

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

* A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

* Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

* The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

* Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

* Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: What kind of bubble is AI? https://craphound.com/news/2024/01/21/what-kind-of-bubble-is-ai/

Upcoming appearances:

* The Bezzle at Weller Book Works (Salt Lake City), Feb 21

* The Bezzle at Mysterious Galaxy (San Diego), Feb 22

* The Bezzle at Third Place Books (Seattle), Feb 26

* The Bezzle at Powell's (Portland) Feb 27:

* The Bezzle at Changing Hands (Phoenix), Feb 29:

* Tucson Festival of Books, Mar 9/10

* Enshittification: How the Internet Went Bad and How to Get it Back (virtual), Mar 26

* Wondercon Anaheim, Mar 29-31

* The Bezzle at Anderson's Books (Chicago), Apr 17

* Torino Biennale Tecnologia (Apr 19-21)

* Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (Winnipeg), May 2

* Tartu Prima Vista Literary Festival (May 5-11)

* Media Ecology Association keynote, Jun 6-9 (Amherst, NY)

* American Association of Law Libraries keynote, (Chicago), Jul 21

Recent appearances:

*  From privacy to paper jams, a look at printer problems

* Big Story Podcast

* Why Taylor Left Tiktok (Today, Explained)

Latest books:

* "The Lost Cause:" a solarpunk novel of hope in the climate emergency, Tor Books (US), Head of Zeus (UK), November 2023 (http://lost-cause.org). Signed, personalized copies at Dark Delicacies (https://www.darkdel.com/store/p3007/Pre-Order_Signed_Copies%3A_The_Lost_Cause_HB.html#/)

* "The Internet Con": A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech (Verso) September 2023 (http://seizethemeansofcomputation.org). Signed copies at Book Soup (https://www.booksoup.com/book/9781804291245).

* "Red Team Blues": "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books http://redteamblues.com. Signed copies at Dark Delicacies (US): and Forbidden Planet (UK): https://forbiddenplanet.com/385004-red-team-blues-signed-edition-hardcover/.

* "Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin", on how to unrig the markets for creative labor, Beacon Press/Scribe 2022 https://chokepointcapitalism.com

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The *Washington Post* called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59?sk=f6cd10e54e20a07d4c6d0f3ac011af6b) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2682/Corey_Doctorow%3A_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer_HB.html#/.

Upcoming books:

* The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024

* Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

* Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

This work - excluding any serialized fiction - is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.


Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


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"*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla*" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla
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