And now a rant from our sponsor

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A friend writes with his impression of the Dutch:

Amsterdam is lovely, somehow a less offensive variety of gentrification and urban development, some of it quite stunning as with the incorporation of the old harbour to the north into the city. Weather can be a real bitch, but has been unseasonably warm. Going away for a few days to the Frisian Islands tomorrow, walking across the mudflats, biking across the barren landscape of the dunes. … I’m liking the Dutch. They’re very critical, yes, but it’s a positive disposition, not one of resignation. No wallowing in melancholy, so often touted as the hallmark of true interpersonal intimacy down south, but a sober, practical attitude that navigates and negotiates emotions in as far as they ultimately enable us to transform and move forward. Very affirmative. Less intuitive, perhaps, and not such élan and fatalism, but not inert, not shallow, and not cold.

One of the things that I realized, linguistically and philosophically, when I was forced into reading Adorno for three months, is that negation doesn’t have origins with any relation to bad, unfortunate, or miserable. The idea of positivity being associated with fortune and happiness seems to have arrived from the soft-headed, hippy-dippy psychological school of “positive thinking” which presumed (and now preaches the idea) that, if you imagine something in your head, i.e. if you really try to “posit it” (whence positive) and take for granted the premise of its becoming, that this will somehow bring it into real-world existence. I mean look, I’m a social constructivist, I think that wide-scale belief is the very substance of our social world, but shit like The Gift mistakes a sociological insight for a psychological one, and reduces the profound premise of existentialism (“we always have the freedom to act even when there are consequences”) to a patently false pretense of self-help (“you can do anything if you set your mind to it!”). Anyway, in the result, “positivity” became associated with happiness and success and good tidings–and “negativity” with the sense of inviting their opposites.

Of course, this is doubly unfortunate: not only because it universalizes a misreading of “positive” that makes both references to “positive law” and “positive social science” nigh-incomprehensible to anyone who lives outside the university, but stupid also because to negate something need not mean replacing a thing with its opposite–it simply implies putting something else in its place. Thus, ideally, the “negative” encompasses that part of thought and practice that goes beyond the imagining of “what if things were such and such a way” to the more practical, fraught task of thinking “what if the nominally existent was replaced with something else” or the even more charged practice of demanding “this nominally existent thing should be replaced with another.” To negate is simply to deny, to say no to the merely existent.

The critic is not the cynic, but literally one that judges, a person not only capable of saying both “yes” and “no” but also of stopping to say “are you sure” and especially “am I?” There is something sick, I think, about cultural practices rooted in the belief that problems can be solved simply by saying “yes” to any idea, new or old, so long as it is well-packaged and expressed with enthusiasm or certainty. I suppose, compared to the dominant strand of the American zeitgeist, that a country willing to raise a quizzical eyebrow, pause before jumping onto the wagon of every fad that bristles with enthusiasm, and reject the magical thinking of “by believing it, we can make it so” will look like an elephant graveyard of nay-saying Eeyores. But nothing could be further from the truth. For inasmuch as the Russian stereotype of fatalism is anything more than a stereotype, it has nothing to do with being critical and has everything in common with the eager-beaver American disease: whereas in the lands of Slavic stereotype, there is an almost overweening willingness to say yes to everything that already is–no matter how bad–and no to any idea about how things might be better, in the always-on digital Manhattan of Twitter, Entertainment Tonight and BuzzFeed, the almost-laughable but ultimately tragic logic of the TEDtalk circuit doles out gold stars to every nincompoop self-deluded enough to stand in front a crowd and expound breathlessly on an idea that promises everything–everything–and at almost no cost.

What I am getting at here is of course being critical is a constructive disposition, and even a “positive” one, but just not in the insane sense in which that word is batted around the Oprah-bookclub lowlands of North American public discourse. The alternative to critique is a society where everyone is shitting themselves with excitement about a future in which we all get to be the next Steve Jobs, all while 2% of the population is in jail, literacy rates are declining and social mobility is lurching in the direction of the ancien regime. It is almost enough to drive you out of your house and into a bathtub in the street. I’ll take boring, slightly wry, but ultimately well-managed conservatism over that hokum any day.

Democracy for Everyone!

Good news, everyone: finance is getting more democratic, because technology.

You know how democracy works, right? It means that a service that was previously only sold to some people gets sold to everyone now. It used to be that only finance dudes got to have finance, but now everyone does. Hooray! Let’s watch a video of democracy happening.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah: today’s breathlessness about the democratizing potential of financial institutions comes from Mohammed Al-Erian, who, as “Chair of Barack Obama’s Global Development Council,” apparently has a job whose sole requirement is an uncriticial embrace of the Silicon Valley doctrine of social policy, i.e. the best way to deal with the social problems caused by deterministic technological change and inevitable laissez-faire economic governance is just let them keep happening.

He assures us that this creeping expansion of financial logic into all areas of our lives isn’t just democratic, it’s also disruptive. I mean, what could be more disruptive than just letting faceless, inevitable social processes (“innovations suddenly appear…mechanisms emerge… business models face challenges”) proceed without any attempt to manage their social consequences at all?

Tackling these claims to disruption, democratic potential and to brand-new, never before-seen processes can get pretty tiring. Jill Lepore at The New Yorker has done a pretty devestating take-down of the disruption discourse, attacking head-on the idea that economic change proceeds in big leaps rather than incremental steps. Peter Frase at Jacobin points out that those most committed to “disruption” get cold feet when the disruptions aren’t derived from a tech-enabled business model. Evgeny Morozov has made his career skewering those with a growing religious faith that “more tech means everything is better for everyone” and, if he can be accused of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, part of the reason is that there is just so, so much dirty bathwater.

There are lots of reasons to be happy about increased access to certain financial services. Bringing down the prices of life insurance and small business loans could put them within the reach of people who didn’t otherwise have access to them. That could make their lives better. Al-Erian may be right that technological change will “reduce the cost of financial intermediation while providing for fairer risk-pooling outcomes and better credit underwriting.”

But here’s the thing: cell phones are now within the reach of almost everyone, and it hasn’t made society more democratic. Buzzfeed may have displaced community newspapers, but I can’t see how that makes things more democratic. The last 40 years of financial innovation brought us near-unprecedented levels of wealth inequality and the largest economic crisis since the 1930s. Why would anyone believe that the next 40 years of financial innovation are going to automatically create a utopia of equal democratic citizenship? How can Al-Erian keep using this word “empowerment”  to describe things like kickstarter, Kiva and bitcoin? It’s inconceivable.