Through the Ages (1/3)

Near the beginning of any year, it seems timely for a reflection of some sorts. I would like to look back on the most influential books that I read in 2019, and share my key learnings from these works of literature.

There are many ways that these books have come upon my lap. A few of these incredible pieces came to me by recommendation. Some were found by diving down the rabbit hole of references or allusions in my current readings. The rest were discovered on the frequent occasion that I am absolutely decimated in an argument and I am in desperate need of ammunition for the next time around.

Going on somewhat of a tangent, what saddens me is that ideas and epiphanies fade away with time, or with lack of exposure. Reading is no exception to this phenomenon.

The emotion is akin to attending a lecture, there showered with the magical voice of reason that is the professor, empowering you with the last bit of knowledge to finish your real analysis homework due the following day. Alas, your supposed control over the sound logic was ephemeral, realized at the moment you arrogantly slouched back on your homely desk chair, mindlessly gazing at your computer screen with recitation problems and nothing of value comes to mind. Consequently, numerous expletives are repeated under your breath, cursing the fact that office hours are held neither today nor tomorrow.

Unfortunately, I was not blessed with a flawless memory to recollect all past understood concepts on command. It is undeniable that memories are fragile, though we try our hardest to remember. Perfect recall, while a great skill, is not my aim. My goal is to understand the essence of the work, to have the ability to distill ideas into simplified thought for application.

Writing helps to associate epiphanies and ideas with these distilled thoughts so there is minimal reconstruction error. In addition, I am grateful for all the conversations that have arisen from fruitful discussions during and after reading. Conversations are a way to deeply retain new concepts and ideas, and also to broaden one’s horizons through the intermingling of perspectives.

I find myself repeatedly drawn to prodding this intersection between me and other individuals, discovering small glimpses of their worldview, and understanding why a certain position is strongly (or weakly) held. Reading and discussion is a way to illuminate these unique, and almost always entertaining, facets about people and their beliefs, and also to pivotally form one’s attitudes about reality. They have certainly been instrumental in shaping my perceptions.

Topics and Musings

Rather than enumerating a list of books and authors examined (you can just check this list for that), I have decided to structure this review by topics I encountered and give a small portion of my musings and thoughts.

A Propaganda Model

After reading a scathing piece on Uber published in the American Affairs Journal, one particular topic stood out to me, regarding the perpetuation of a media-manufactured narrative to drive an agenda forward. Hubert Horan, an established industry consultant in transportation economics and regulation, claimed that Uber’s greatest strength was its narrative construction of itself as a “heroic innovator” with “inevitable dominance”, achieving “Facebook- or Amazon-type” exploitive power in the ride sharing industry. Indeed, such a narrative was incredibly influential, convincing the public that its initial public offering would be the second most valuable in U.S. history, after a social media conglomerate headquartered in Menlo Park.

With the promotion of this claim in public perception, attention to questionable details about Uber was deflected and cast aside. The suspect stability of Uber’s economics and its “culture of sexual harassment and retaliation” must be of second hand concern to the public: the house of cards was not to topple. To defend Uber from such realizations, as well as mark them as minority sentiments, control over popular perception of Uber was paramount. But how could such shaping be achieved?

One way to understand control over perception is taken from Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky, one of the most widely cited scholars of our time, and Edward S. Herman, an incredible force in media criticism. The authors construct a propaganda model, claiming that the media undergoes a sieve of five filters before being presented to the public.

The first of these filters is the profit seeking impulses of media ownership, which sacrifices news objectivity to maximize profit.

The second is media advertisement, which motivates the exclusion of pieces that conflict with the propensity of advertisers to continue patronizing the media institutions.

The third is media sourcing, where trusted, “newsworthy” sources are provided by corporations for the press to receive fresh news.

The fourth is flak, the propensity of media institutions or individuals to be discredited if their view flows against established assumptions in benefit of the powerful.

The fifth and final filter is the promotion of anti-ideologies to exploit public fear against threats of some sort of amorphous form.

In our era of media reporting, it is imperative to remain cognizant of how the information presented to us is created. We must keep a critical eye to discern the rare absolute truth from the forms of propaganda in our society that take on the form of the pushing of fake news falsehoods into the mainstream, and the reporting of half-truths rampant with intentional exclusion of facts from the whole story.

Understanding a model of propaganda creation is one step in this direction. Mapping these sieves of this model to Uber, we can see how the company’s agenda was promoted, digested by the media corporations, and pristinely presented for the public to consume.

The first three of the propaganda filters can be encapsulated as media’s biases due to market forces. Uber was able to supply the media firms “prepackaged, easy-to-grasp ‘narratives’”, in benefit of its public perception. After all, with the successes of tech companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, and Uber’s supposed capacity to join the legion, no media outlet wanted to miss the story, fall behind its competitors, and cause its profit sources to suffer. Neither should the veracity of the narratives be questioned by the media, unless denial of access to these exclusive and trending stories was desired.

The fourth filter of media flak is best embodied through venture capitalist Paul Graham, co-founder of renowned seed incubator Y-Combinator. In defense of Uber, Graham states: “Uber is so obviously a good thing that you can measure how corrupt cities are by how hard they try to suppress it.” Dissenting opinions were labeled as undoubtedly corrupt, with the unstated assumption that advances in technology are always a force for good. As a representation of technological progress, the transportation disruptor was here to stay.

The fifth filter of anti-ideology played upon Uber’s role in promoting deregulation in the taxi transportation industry. Uber represented progress, the force of market freedoms that have been long awaited. Here, the amorphous being targeted by the media is government regulation and anti-free market principles that have been promoted by industries of the past. Deregulation of the airline industry successfully made air travel affordable and more varied for consumers - should not the same effect happen in the taxi industry with the emergence of Uber? How could one even think about disciplining a company that provides job opportunities to drivers desiring a personalized working schedule, offers low fares for consumers, and expands the range of transportation service coverage to more communities. However, such innovation involved the reclassification of drivers as contractors, funding subsidized fares, and so claimed, yet unfounded, monumental shifts of taxi economics. But again, these are labelled as minor details for the public.

In summary, Uber was able to use its position as a technology innovator to discipline media and perpetuate a perception of admirable innovation and guaranteed dominance in the ride-sharing transportation industry.

Finding Neoliberalism (a sequel to Finding Nemo)

Although we have only applied the the propaganda model to Uber’s public relations efforts, the model is also applicable in other domains, from the justification of U.S. interests abroad in other countries, the creation of consent for domestic political policies, and the defense of corporate practices that advocate for a Milton Friedman model of shareholder prioritization above all else using free market fundamentalism. The last of these applications has been of significant interest for me this past year. How have we come to evolve to the situation we are in now? How has the model come to be perpetuated? And if the system is supposedly unsustainable upon critical examination, why have we not come up with a better alternative?

The story of the origins of this system, known as neoliberalism, was told in great detail in A Brief History of Neoliberalism by renowned Marxist economic geographer David Harvey. Most notably, Harvey claims the shift to our current regime of economic thought was a response to the “Golden Age of Capitalism” from 1930’s to 1960’s where a command economy built on Keynesian demand-side debt-financed dogma reigned supreme.

In such a system, there were consequences to the upper professional managerial class in the form of decreased wealth accumulation and subordination to strong, unionized labor power. Primarily, Harvey states that the ideology of neoliberalism served as a class project to reconsolidate power in the hands of the wealthy elites. How was the power restored to these elites?

In the early 1970’s, stagflation revealed the weakness in Keynesian economics, resulting in rampant inflation and unemployment. When this Achilles heel was exposed, opponents of demand-side economics seized the opportunity to propel neoliberal ideas to mainstream thought. Privatization and deregulation initiatives were legion, globalization and job offshoring became attractive, and deindustrialization efforts were underway.

We should stress that in Harvey’s eyes, it was not that the capital or professional class started by reading the theoretical works of neoliberal scholars such as Hayek or Friedman. In an interview with Jacobin, Harvey stated, “I think [the capital class] just intuitively said, ‘We gotta crush labor, how do we do it?’ And they found that there was a legitimizing [neoliberal] theory out there, which would support that.”

It was also a natural turn of events. With the exposition that demand-side economics in the form of debt-financing could not solve problems such as stagflation, the intuitive alternative was to turn to supply-side economics as the solution. However, when this alternative fails, what is the next answer to the problem? George Monbiot, political activist and British writer from The Guardian published a fantastic summary on the ideology of neoliberalism. He declares the persistent nature of the neoliberal system, “When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 70s, there was an alternative ready. But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was … nothing. This is why the zombie walks.” With no alternative from the left, we are stuck with the neoliberal dogma.

The etymology of neoliberalism connotes some sort of new emergence of classical liberal ideas. Here, the promise is of liberties in the form of market freedoms. Can we truly rely on this market order system to provide us the freedoms we want in life? It’s benefited me, but not for the majority of people. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really here to stay.

Next Topics

In the following parts, I will discuss Philip K. Dick’s works and the idea of the Reality and the Real, as well as Carl Jung and his universal language of archetypes.

Closing Remarks

2019 was a year to be remembered. I graduated from university, spent an incredible summer in New York, and then moved out to San Francisco to start full time work. Reading helped fill the time between these events, and exploring these various topics was incredibly rewarding.

Thanks to all those who helped review this essay, including Vineet Pande, Julian So, Steven Zhang, Jeffrey Zhao, and Rosanne Ng!

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