I’ve gotten several complaints about ads on my blog.
When I set this thing up in 2009, I didn’t know much about the web— I’m an AI programmer; web stuff I do when there’s a reason to do it— and I used WordPress’s free offering, and it worked. At the time, you published a blog post and there it was. No ads.
At some point, WordPress began running banner ads under my essays, without paying me, because I was using the free tier, so I guess the attitude was, fuck that guy. I never saw the ads on my own blog, when logged in, and now I understand why. If WordPress bloggers (like this dumb sap) knew how intrusive the ads were, they’d be less likely to create content.
The banner ads were ugly— and I wasn’t making any money off the damn things— but I was willing to tolerate them… laziness, inertia, not wanting to start over.
This afternoon, I looked at my blog, while not logged in, and saw this:
Not just a banner ad, but a block ad, right between paragraphs. A fear-based fake-news ad, on top of that. Fucking garbage, in the middle of my writing.
I never allowed this. I am embarrassed that this piece of garbage ran between two paragraphs of my writing. I am fucking done with this shit.
What have we let happen to the Web? Fake news, interstitial ads, egregious memory consumption, and those obnoxious metered paywalls. Social media is an embarrassment. I am so sick of all this fucking garbage, the blue-check two-tier social platforms, the personality cults, the insipid drama, and the advertisements for garbage products no one wants and badly-written ad copy no one needs to read.
I am sick of “Free” meaning garbage. Yes, I’ll pay for news— but never in a million years if you punish me for reading more than my “4 free monthly articles”, you rancid stain. Make it free or charge for it; don’t be an asswipe and play games. Stop “giving away” a garbage product in the hopes of someone paying for something better.
This blog goes down at the end of April. I’m done with WordPress. I’m a programmer; time to roll my own.
Political leaders like Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are trying to force the American people to choose one of two unacceptable alternatives:
- Fast Kill: do nothing about the virus’s spread, causing millions of preventable deaths due to the catastrophe of large numbers of people— orders of magnitude beyond what our hospital system is designed to handle— becoming critically ill at the same time.
- Hang the Poor: practice social distancing and flatten the curve (which we must do) but at the expense of crashing the economy, leading the poor to face joblessness, misery, and bankruptcy— In Time, it turns out, is not fiction— culminating in a Great Depression–level economic collapse.
Both scenarios lead to preventable loss of life. Both scenarios are intolerably destructive and will impoverish a generation. Both scenarios are completely unacceptable if something better can be done. Indeed, something better can. We must flatten the curve; we must practice social distancing. But, it is artificial that “the economy” should be threatened by our doing so.
Compared to a 1973 benchmark, employers take 37 cents out of worker’s paychecks for themselves. Costs of living have gone up, wages have not kept pace, and working conditions have degraded. The result is a society where working people live on the margin, where two weeks without an income can produce, for most individuals, financial ruin. It didn’t have to be this way. This fragility is artificial. The rich created, for their own short-sighted benefit, a society in which the poor must serve the manorial lords on a daily basis or starve. It doesn’t have to be that way.
There’s a third option, one that Trump and Congressional Republicans would rather us not see. Yes, we flatten the curve; we practice social distancing and self-isolation and even follow a quarantine if circumstances require it. On the economic front, institute a wealth tax— a 37-percent immediate wealth tax to commemorate the 37% private tax levied against workers by their employers, and a 3-percent annual tax on wealth over $5 million going forward. Restore upper-tier income taxes to their New Deal levels. Offer a universal basic income (UBI) and put in place universal healthcare (“Medicare for All”). Remove restrictions on unemployment benefits. Mandate that employers protect the jobs of workers furloughed by this crisis. Offer rent and mortgage relief to those who need it. Eliminate student debt, and make appropriate public education free for all who are academically qualified. After the crisis, put funding into research and sustainable infrastructure. All of this can be done— for the most part, these aren’t new ideas.
The billionaires and corporate executives— and the Republican Party that represents them— don’t want Americans to see this third option. They’re afraid of “socialism”, not because it might not work, but because it almost certainly will. It took them fifty years— and an uneasy alliance with religious nutcases and racists— to roll back the New Deal and the Great Society, and they’re terrified of socialist ideas getting into implementation, because they know that when this happens, people find out they like socialism, and it takes immense political effort to roll this plutocrat-hostile progress back.
We don’t have to choose between “the economy” and millions of lives. This is a false dilemma being put forward by evil people who will only consider scenarios that leave the power relationships and hierarchies of corporate capitalism intact. Their failure to allow a workable third alternative constitutes murderous negligence.
Our economic elite is made up of people who would rather see millions die than the emergence of an economic system that challenged their titanic power. If we survive COVID–19, if we defeat the the virus, we should go after them next.
Societies around the world face a horrible decision, as a deadly coronavirus rages through the population. Do they continue with economic business-as-usual, and allow tens of millions of preventable deaths? Or, do they take drastic measures to slow the spread of disease (“flattening the curve“) that endanger our economy?
Let’s consider one extreme. What is likely to happen if our elected and business leaders do nothing? The number of people infected continues to double every 6 days. Our hospitals are swamped. Unheard-of numbers of people need respiratory support, all at once. Most do not get it— and they die. People needing transplants, even if they never get the virus, die waiting because the resources are unavailable. By midsummer, tens of millions of people are dead, and at least tens of millions more, though recovered, are permanently disabled. I call this scenario, the Fast Kill.
I don’t want the Fast Kill. Millions of needless deaths is a thing to be avoided. However, the perspective of our economic elite is quite different from mine or yours. The billionaires are on private islands, or in secret bunkers, and can wait this thing out. A Fast Kill, to them, has one clear advantage: the power relationships and hierarchies of corporate capitalism (with some loss of personnel) remain intact.
Will our economy shatter if we take measures to slow the spread of disease? Yes, because corporate capitalism is brittle by design. Since 1973, worker productivity has nearly doubled, while wages have stagnated. Out of every dollar a worker makes, executives take 37 cents for themselves. As workers compete against each other for the benefit of the richest 0.1 percent— as opposed to, say, overthrowing their masters— rents rise, wages fall, and working conditions degrade. We now have a world where most people— and quite a number of vital small businesses— cannot survive 2, 4, 6 weeks without an income. Many workers get no paid sick leave. As elected officials and public-health experts demand we take measures to control COVID–19’s spread, many people will, by virtue of their need for weekly income, be unable to comply.
We wouldn’t tolerate a 37% tax, imposed on the lower and middle classes, from our government. And yet, that is exactly what the private-sector bureaucrats called “executives” have levied against working men and women. As a result, millions of people are so broke that, even under a quarantine enforced by the national guard, the need for an income will undermine such measures. Those who are forced to live on the daily
“hustle”— odd jobs, panhandling, alleyway short cons, and black-market labor— are used to evading authorities, and they’re good at it.
Here’s some of what we need to do, to survive COVID–19 with civilization intact. Yes, of course we need to flatten the curve; we need to slow our economy and focus on urgent needs such as food, shelter, energy, and medicine. We need universal basic income protection— not a means-tested one-time payment, because a one-time check won’t do enough and we don’t have time to quibble over means tests— that people can rely on until the crisis is over. We need mandatory job protection for people sickened (and, in many cases, disabled) by COVID–19. We need rent relief for people who lose their jobs. We need to remove all restrictions on unemployment benefits, and to make these benefits tax-exempt as they were before Reagan. We need an unconditional moratorium on all medical bills— and, at the same time, government funding of hospitals to keep them afloat— during this unprecedented public health crisis.
All of this, yes, is “socialism”. Socialism is nothing more and nothing less than the contention that the principles of the Age of Reason (e.g., rational government over clerical rule or hereditary monarchy) ought apply to the economy as well. It turns out that there are no capitalists in foxholes.
Our society is ruled by people, most of whom would rather see millions die than see such measures enacted. Why? Once so-called socialist measures are in place, they become pillars of a society and it takes decades to remove them. Surviving COVID–19 is going to require governments all around the world to impose socialistic measures more drastic than the New Deal and the Great Society combined.
There are no good alternatives. If elected leaders do nothing, we get a Fast Kill. Tens of millions of people die, and tens of millions more are disabled. If curve-flattening measures are imposed without socialistic protections, we destroy what’s left of the middle class, eviscerate the consumer economy, and risk such a high rate of noncompliance that infection may spread, needlessly killing millions, anyway.
Billionaires and corporate executives are scared, not of the virus, but of the changes our society will need to make to survive COVID–19. What if those social-welfare protections stick? Billionaires will become three-digit millionaires. Three-digit millionaires will become two-digit millionaires. Private jetters will have to fly first-class commercial flights. Corporate executives will be administrators rather than dukes and viscounts. Worker protections will be enforced again, interfering with the “right to manage”. In the long term, extensive investment in the sciences and health (to fight the next COVID–19) will raise employee leverage, at capital’s expense, across the board. The horror!
Those who run the global economy, to the extent that they have a say in what societies do, have a conflict of interest. They can try to preserve the hierarchies and power relationships that enrich them— at the cost of a holocaust or few. Or, they can accept social changes that, while bringing humanity forward, will emasculate corporate capitalism and hasten its replacement by a more humane system, such as social democracy en route to automated luxury communism.
Shall it be Capitalism–19, or Humanity–20, that survives? Working men and women await the answer.
An assertion I have made recently has drawn controversy. I have said that, in the wake of COVID–19, we’ll likely see 8 million American workers become unemployably disabled for a long period of time–– years; possibly, for life. This is an extreme prediction, and I hope I’m wrong. I’ve made predictions that were wrong and embarrassing. I sincerely hope this is the most embarrassing prediction I’ll ever make. Given the extremity of it, let me explain the assumptions on which it rests.
Please, check my work. If I’m making an incorrect assumption, post a comment, and I will fix it.
I am not, in any capacity, an expert on virology, medicine, or epidemiology. These are complex, difficult sciences and we must defer to the experts. The numbers I will be using will be within the ranges of existing predictions regarding how bad this pandemic can get, and how much damage it can do.
Of course, we have to define terms. What does it mean for a person to be unemployably disabled? There is a spectrum of sickness, and one of disability. The vast majority of this 8 million people (plus or minus a factor of two) will not be bedridden, miserable, or sickly for the rests of their lives. Unemployably disabled means that someone is sick enough that (a) no one wants to hire her (whether because of her disability itself or her suboptimal career history) and (b) she struggles to retain jobs due to her inability to hide the chronic health problem. She need not be physically crippled, psychiatrically hospitalized, or too sick to contend with daily life. She might not “look” disabled at all, but she will have too few spoons to have even a chance of victory in corporate combat.
In the United States, where employers are above the law on account of having convinced the public to call them “job creators”, it does not take much disability at all to make someone unemployably disabled.
Like I said, I’m going to document all of my assumptions, so the public can check my work.
My first assumption is that COVID–19 will not be contained. This is the biggest one, and I hope I’m wrong. If the virus is contained, like SARS, then perhaps only a small number of people will be exposed to the virus. If only 500,000 people get it, then clearly there is no way for COVID–19 to render 8 million people unemployably disabled.
However, the virus is extremely contagious, with an r0 estimated at 2.28. Not as bad as measles, worse than flu–– probably worse (in contagion) than the monster flu of 1918. Does this mean that it can’t be contained? No. SARS had a similar r0 and was contained. However, neoliberal corporate capitalism, for reasons that will be discussed, is especially bad at containing outbreaks.
Old-style state authoritarianism has its failings, but people know what the rules are. A government quarantine can be enforced. An authoritarian government can just shoot at people who move until the r0 drops below 1. It’s a terrible solution, but it works.
Social democracy can also work, so long as a sufficient number of people have the good will to exercise their option to hunker down (that is, practice social distancing) and let the experts handle the crisis. I have chronic health issues but I am taking special measures right now (e.g., dietary changes, avoidance of damaging circumstances) to minimize risk of needing medical attention in the next six months. In part, my reasons for doing so are selfish; in part, I am trying to minimize my risk of being a burden to a soon-to-be-overtaxed hospital system. We are all on the same team.
What cannot contain an epidemic like COVID–19 is an economic system such as ours. Under neoliberal corporate capitalism, we have a libertarian government (providing immense economic freedom to those privileged enough not to have to work) but live in a matrix of authoritarian employers, who control our incomes and our reputations, and who can bend the government to their will by calling themselves “job creators”. In a world like this, no one knows who is in charge. Who does the American worker obey? Does he obey the man in Washington advising self-quarantine, or does he obey the boss who believes “coronavirus is just a cold” and has the power to turn off his income (and, by giving negative references, non-consensually insert himself into the worker’s reputation) if he shows up 15 minutes late? Chances are, he’s going to ignore the G-Man and obey his boss. The quarantine will not be effective. Even if it is enforced by the government, so many people are in such precarious economic straits that they will illegally circumvent it, if it comes to that.
We would have to scrap corporate capitalism entirely to have anything better than a 5 percent chance of containing COVID–19. Let’s be honest, a total overhaul of our economic system in the next two months is very unlikely. Chances are that, instead, the novel coronavirus will stick around in the American population (and, therefore, the world population) for good.
How bad is this? Not necessarily terrible. Over time, we’ll probably develop natural immunities to this thing, rendering it just another coronavirus. In the mean time, though, COVID is going to make a lot of people sick.
My second assumption is that about 100 million American workers will get COVID–19. Angela Merkel predicted that two-thirds of Germans will contract the virus., which is in line with epidemiologists’ expectations. That doesn’t mean they’ll all get sick. Most won’t. Case-fatality rates–– the WHO has given this disease a CFR of 3.4%–– often overestimate the lethality of the virus, because so many mild and asymptomatic cases go undetected. We may never know the real lethality rate of this disease, but in working-age Americans it will likely be under 1 percent. That’s the good news. This is a serious illness, but it’s not showing a likelihood of being a massacre like, say, the 1918 flu.
What about flattening the curve?
Health ministers and epidemiologists have been advising us to practice social distancing–– that is, avoid large gatherings–– to slow the virus’s exponential growth and “flatten the curve”. We absolutely must do that. A widespread emergency that overloads the hospital system will cause the lethality to spike, as it has in Italy.
By flattening the curve, we can achieve a great deal in preventing deaths, but we’re not necessarily going to reduce the number of cases. Flattening the curve is important because, when resources run thin, the matter of when people get sick has a major influence on survival. It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll never get sick.
How sick? Some people will carry the virus and suffer no symptoms. Some people (and not only elderly people) will get severely ill.
My third assumption is that, among that 100 million workers, the breakdown of cases (into asymptomatic, mild, severe, and critical cases) will be similar to what we’ve seen so far.
Unfortunately, there’s some guesswork regarding the currently infected population. We haven’t tested everyone; we don’t know how many cases of COVID–19 there are. Using percentages I believe to be in range of what experts expect, and scaling down a bit because we are speaking of the working-age population (a younger and healthier set) I’m going to predict: 50 million asymptomatic cases, 35 million mild infections, 13 million severe cases, and 2 million that are critical. These numbers could well be off by a factor of two, but not in a way that would meaningfully alter my fundamental conclusion–– that millions of people are about to develop long-term disabilities that, in American corporate capitalism, will render them unemployable.
It’s important to understand what is meant by a “mild” infection, when the medical community says that most (70–90%) COVID infections are mild. The word “mild” is relative. A “severe” cold (38 °C fever, inflammation and pain, unable to work) is “mild” by the standards of flu. Similarly, “mild” SARS or COVID is comparable to “severe” influenza (unless we’re talking about the 1918 monster flu, which is in its own category). Specifically, in the context of COVID, “mild” means that a patient is expected to survive without hospitalization–– there is no evidence of immediate danger.
In a “mild” case, life-threatening secondary infections may occur later on. That’s a serious issue, but not one that must be treated now. Some of these “mild” cases will come with pneumonia. Some will come with 39–40 °C (unpleasant but not critical) fever. Some will produce post-viral chronic fatigue comparable to that following mononucleosis or the bacterial infection responsible for Lyme disease. Quite a few people with “mild” cases will experience transient (but not life-threatening) respiratory distress serious enough to induce panic disorder or PTSD. These cases won’t require hospitalization–– and hospitalization will likely be unavailable–– but they will still be, for most young people, the worst health problems of their lives so far.
If that barrel of fun is “mild” COVID, what’s severe? Severe cases require hospitalization for days, and possibly weeks. Artificial respiration may be involved. Critical cases include those where vital organs are involved–– kidney failure has been reported. Yeah, this thing’s nasty.
Any health problem can traumatize a person, but respiratory ailments have quite a track record. The body is not meant to go without oxygen, and even slight deprivations freak the brain out. We’ve seen this with SARS and the 1918 flu. We’re likely to see it with COVID–19. Even in the cases being called “mild”, because there is no threat to life that requires emergency hospitalization, truly “full recovery” is not a guarantee. People are going to get panic attacks from this, and once a person has had a few of those, a lifelong struggle with panic disorder (and agoraphobia, and depression due to adversity in employment) becomes likely.
My fourth assumption is that COVID–19 will have a long-term disability profile, controlling for severity, comparable to SARS.
Does this mean that 40–50 percent of COVID–19 survivors will be unemployably disabled? It’s hard to say. SARS is not COVID–19. Let’s size up some of the differences.
For one, SARS disproportionately affected skilled healthcare workers, for whom there’s high demand in any economic situation. We would see a higher rate of unemployable disability if this hit people whose services aren’t really needed–– say, private-sector software engineers or project managers. Of course, it will hit everyone and
Second. SARS did not have many victims in the United States–– where, although it is illegal to discriminate against disabled workers, the laws are scantly enforced. It mostly afflicted countries where workers have better protections against their employers. If, say, 40 percent of survivors were unemployably disabled in Canada, we’d likely see 75 percent unemployably disabled in the United States, not because the disease was more severe but simply because employers in the US get away with more.
That being said, all the evidence so far suggests that COVID–19 is not as severe as SARS. Therefore, I don’t think we’re going to see the same rate of unemployable disability (40 – 50 percent) among COVID–19 survivors, if only because there are so many more mild cases.
Here are my predictions. Five percent (1.75 million) of those with mild infections will be unemployably disabled–– that is, at some point, subjected to a career disruption through no fault of their own from which they will be unable to recover. Among the severe cases, I’m predicting 40 percent (5.2 million); among those with critical cases, 65 percent (1.3 million). These numbers might each be off by a factor of 2, but they’re not unreasonable. They are middling estimates.
There’s already a mountain of evidence supporting high proportions of those suffering severe and critical illness becoming, through no fault of their own, unemployable. What about the mild cases? Isn’t it a bit dire to predict that 5 percent of people with “only” mild infections will become unemployably disabled? No, it’s not. If anything, the real number’s likely to be higher.
Most of these cases will not be attributed COVID–19. Plenty of the people won’t know they ever had it. They’ll simply experience “a bad month” in which they will be unable to meet the performance requirements of their jobs, suffer managerial adversity and workplace bullying, and suffer career setbacks from which they’ll never recover.
Kimberly Han is a (hypothetical) 33-year-old software engineer at a half-trillion-dollar technology company, LetterSalad (formerly, Vigintyllion). On April 3, she develops a mild case of COVID–19. She’s able to work from home, because the US is on lockdown. Her fever never breaks 39 °C and she never feels the need to go to the hospital. She’s never diagnosed with COVID. She never thinks she even had it. Since she works from home, she’s not even aware of racist COVID-related jokes made about her by the managerial in-crowd. The storm passes. Everything’s fine.
In September, Ms. Han finds herself tired. Post-viral syndrome. Other than being tired, she’s fine, but she develops a cough. She misses a “sprint” deadline. She needs to take naps in the afternoon, and misses an unannounced but important meeting. Management perceives her as a “slacker” or as “sickly” or as “low-energy”. The product manager and her “people manager” tell her to stop “SARSing up the schedule”, which is totally not racist because the direct manager is a white, Ivy-educated “Boston Brahmin” and the product manager is an actual Brahmin, and it’s physically impossible for racists of two different races to work together to be racist to someone.
The workplace bullying culminates in her developing post-traumatic stress disorder. She begins to have daily panic attacks. She powers through the episodes, not missing a day of work to the attacks, but her manager doesn’t like “the optics” and begins paperwork to terminate her “for performance”. Kimberly Han, through no fault of her own, loses her job. Within time, the post-viral fatigue lets up but post-traumatic stress disorder does not. COVID–19 left her body and she is unaware that she’s had it, but she’s unemployably disabled.
What’s above will happen to people. Even if we do everything right, even if we flatten the curve and prevent our hospitals from becoming dangerously overloaded, it will happen to American workers, not necessarily in that precise way, but nonetheless surely. Some will have reduced lung capacity. Some will develop anxiety and depression. Some will develop panic attacks or PTSD. So will never be diagnosed but exhibit unexplained personal changes and not even know, when they are fired and unable to ever work again, that it was because of illness that they lost their careers (and that they were, therefore, fired illegally).
Could I be wrong on that 8 million figure? Of course. More accurately, it is: 8 million, plus or minus a factor of 2, conditional on an assumption of non-containment. I hope I’m wrong. I hope the virus is contained, or that it proves seasonal and dies out in the spring, but there’s no evidence that we can count on either one.
It is very likely that millions of American workers are about to become unemployably disabled. Crippled? No. Not even necessarily unhealthy. Careers are fragile things; it doesn’t take much disturbance to make someone unable to get and keep jobs in a competitive labor market that has been rigged against workers for the past forty years.
“Couldn’t this be a good thing?”
I understand the argument. This pandemic may create a short-term labor shortage, and there are people who believe the clearing-out could lead to an improvement of opportunities for workers. I’m not so bullshit.
I don’t know enough about virology, medicine, or epidemiology to do anything more than piece together existing research, but I do know enough about economics, politics, and organizational dynamics to say this: while the people who own our society are evil, they are not stupid. The upper class and the corporate executives will profit, and we will suffer.
There are some people (sick, broken people) who believe that this “Boomer Remover”: virus will create opportunities in the workplace or that it will “clear away” people who are a burden on society. Neither’s true. First, while this will kill a lot of sick old people, it will at the same time make a lot of currently healthy people (young and old) very sick–– in some cases, for a long time. The disability burden on society is not going to be ameliorated by COVID–19; it will be increased.
So, let’s talk about why a potential labor shortage isn’t actually to the worker’s benefit. We are not in the time of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, the nobles needed the peasants. American workers can easily be replaced by machines and by literal slaves in other countries, and they will be. I remember, in 2005, being told that Millennials would face a world of opportunity by now, as Boomers retired and vacated the workforce. It didn’t happen. Those cushy $500,000-per-year BoomerJobs? Those were never filled. They simply ceased to exist. We live in a society where recessions are permanent (for the workers) and recoveries are jobless. When things go bad, workers are first to suffer; when things are good, the owners take the bounty for themselves. COVID–19 will be no different. The rich will see a drop in their stock valuations; the poor will be eviscerated. This dynamic will not change until we destroy corporate capitalism.
What happens to the eight million people who become unemployable because of post-viral disability? There’s no safety net in this country, so these people will have record-low leverage, and so while they won’t find decent jobs (because no one will hire them for one) the owners of our society will find ways to extract work from them. A number fall into precarious “gig economy” piece-work, grinding out enough of an income to survive, as their health gradually unravels (even as COVID–19 becomes a distant, unpleasant memory). The least fortunate will turn to various unsavory ventures, because illicit labor doesn’t require a spotless résumé. Perhaps the most talented of the newly-disabled will do what I’ve had to do: swing from one six-month rent-a-job to another, until the boss figures out they have a disability and either fires or gimp-tracks them. That these people will be unemployable doesn’t mean that society won’t be able to get work out of them–– it means that they’ll be unable to get anything out of society.
One might think, though, that the eventual exclusion of 8 million people from traditional, “respectable” labor (office jobs) could bring a benefit to other 152 million who do not develop lifelong disabilities. Less competition, right? That’s exactly what our pig-fucker bastard owners want us to think. They want us to think of our fellow citizens–– fellow proletarians–– as “competition”. They want us divided against each other, because it keeps them in charge.
Revisit the title of this essay. I predicted that millions of people (8 million, plus or minus) will become unemployably* disabled, accent on the *.
In a corporate dystopia, where workers compete against each other for the benefit of their owners, it is inevitable that people with otherwise mild disabilities will become unemployable. That is, they will be unable to convince the obscenely well-paid “professionals” who profit by the buying and selling of others’ labor to give them gainful, stable employment. There is no reason it has to be this way.
Should a person who suffers post-viral fatigue be subjected to workplace bullying and performance evaluation? I would say no. Should a person, recovering from a severe respiratory illness, be non-consensually ejected from her career because her panic disorder or depression caused a headache for her boss? No.
Here’s the reveal, which should not be much of one.
Yes, COVID–19 is going to fuck a lot of people up. It’s killing people and will continue to do so. It’s horrible. I wish this were not happening; I wish what is about to happen were not about to happen. This said, it need not be the case that COVID–19 renders 8 million people, or even one person, unemployable. COVID–19 exists in nature; it is part of the real physical world and we have to contend with it. “Employability” does not exist in nature. It is a part of a social construct and a stupid one at that.
Corporate capitalism is a fragile, hostile economic system that will throw millions of people under the bus in the next year for no reason but their “offense” of getting sick. It will not know whether they got sick from COVID–19 or a secondary infection or post-viral fatigue or the psychiatric sequelae of respiratory illnesses. It will not care. It will fire them “for performance” and the wheels of the bus will roll along.
We’ll soon see about 8 million people rendered permanently unable to, on the harsh terms of corporate capitalism, get an income. For what? Is the needless suffering (and, likely, the continuing worsening of their health) of 8 million people, who did nothing wrong, a worthy price for the upkeep of a decaying socioeconomic system that all intelligent people–– even though we disagree on solutions–– despise? I think not.
COVID–19 is horrible. The earthly existences of thousands are, as I write this, in present danger. That number is likely to worsen. We need not let it be more perilous than nature has made it.
If we keep corporate capitalism around, we will see 8 million people–– some talented, some extraordinarily competent; but nonetheless unable to survive in a system where each worker must compete against a hypothetical replacement who might be as skilled but without illness–– fall out of the primary economy for good. There’s no point in that. It doesn’t have to happen that way. We can tear corporate capitalism down. We can overthrow our corporate masters (through nonviolent means if possible, through other means if our adversaries make it so). We can eradicate an economic system in which we compete against each other for the benefit of a tiny, self-serving minority who wish to own us. COVID–19 is proving to us that we, citizens of the world, are all on one team. We all want this thing not to destroy us and everyone we care about. It’s time to build an economic system reflective of that.
Wash your hands for 20 seconds. Avoid public gatherings. Try not to touch your face. Furthermore, I consider that corporate capitalism delenda est.
I had a mild bout of flu in February 2008. I’d had worse flus, and I have had worse since then. I was a 24-year-old with no health issues; I recovered quickly.
What made this infection notable was that, a month later, I experienced intense pain in my throat that radiated through my chest and face. I could barely see. I tried to drink water and could not swallow. For a minute or two, I couldn’t breathe. Laryngospasm–– it feels like drowning in air. Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting followed. The “mystery illness” caused a panic attack. Not just one, either; they kept coming for months.
The physical problem turned out to be a secondary bacterial infection. It’s rare, but sometimes happens after influenza.
Unfortunately, the panic attacks never went away. They often don’t. Severe respiratory illnesses often cause lifelong disability–– PTSD, reduced lung capacity, depression, anxiety and panic disorders. Once the body and brain “learn” how to panic, this vulnerability becomes a new facet of daily life. So terrible is the experience of a panic attack that a person will do nearly anything to end one. Without a doubt, they’re one of the worst things a person can experience. Moreover, the fear of panic attacks can, itself, produce one. Intrusive thoughts and superstitions become a part of daily life. Unchecked, this can lead to dysfunction and agoraphobia.
I hit bottom in 2009. I was agoraphobic. I had to spend a year re-learning how to do daily activities, re-learning that it was safe to ride a bike, sit on a crowded subway, ride a car. I built myself back from 1 HP. It wasn’t easy.
At this point, I’m 98-percent recovered from panic disorder. I used to have attacks on a daily basis. Now, I might have a “go-homer”–– one bad enough that I have to leave work–– once in a year or so. I’m probably in the 85th percentile for health at my age (36). Aside from being minus gallbladder, I’m in excellent physical health. I can deadlift 340 pounds. At this point, I can do all the activities of daily life. I’ve had panic attacks while driving. I don’t recommend that experience, but it’s not unsafe. If I have one while scuba diving, I have a plan for that (signal diving buddy, ascend slowly).
Open-plan offices are a struggle for me. Actual danger doesn’t trigger panic attacks. I’m fine riding a bike in traffic. I’ve swum with sharks (no cage) at 78 feet–– which is not as dangerous as it sounds. Open-plan offices, though, are needless cruelty. The easiest way to have a panic attack is to sit for nine hours in a place where having one (a minor irritation when it happens at home) will be a professional death sentence–– and, trust me on this, it is. If the bosses find out you have (scary music) “mental illness”, you will either be fired or given the worst projects–– gimp-tracking–– until you leave.
So-called “mental illness”, after a serious respiratory infection, is normal. The body is not meant to go breathless. Nearly half of SARS survivors, ten years after recovery, were still too disabled to return to work. These were healthcare workers (in high demand) outside of the United States. For American wage workers, the rate’s going to be worse.
I’ll give myself as an example. On May 10, 2019, I successfully interviewed for a job at MITRE as a simulation and modeling engineer. On May 13, they made an offer, which I accepted. My intended start date was Monday, June 3. Robert Wittman, who was to be my manager, somehow learned of my diagnosis (likely, illegally) and, on the (false) belief that it would prevent me from getting a security clearance, rescinded the offer. This happened to me 11 years after the original infection.
So, even if you survive severe COVID and are well enough to work, you might not find anyone willing to hire you.
Here’s my prediction, and I hope I’m wrong, but I’m probably not. If anything, these numbers are conservative.
First, I think that nearly everyone in the US will be exposed to COVID–19. The Republican Party’s forty-year campaign to destroy our government has been successful, and employers are more interested in the appearance of doing the right thing than in actually doing the right thing. The American workforce is 160 million people. I predict 100 million will be infected.
Half of that 100 million, I predict, will be asymptomatic. They’ll get the disease but show little pathology. Of the other half, I predict 35 million mild cases, 13 million severe cases, and 2 million critical cases, leading to 125,000 deaths. These numbers are far more favorable than the pattern the disease has shown, and that’s because I’m talking about the American workforce, not the entire population. Total deaths in the US could reach seven figures; working-age deaths, probably, will not.
“Mild” is a relative term, and when we’re talking about diseases like SARS or COVID, “mild” isn’t all that mild. It means the case probably doesn’t require hospitalization. Some who have mild cases will develop secondary infections. Many will lose their jobs and health insurance, producing psychiatric sequelae. These people won’t be in immediate danger of losing their lives, but many will be disabled, and some for years. I’m going to say that 5 percent of people (1.75 million) in this set will be long-term disabled–– they will lose their jobs due to illness and be unable to find work.
Of the 13 million severe cases, I’m going to use SARS as a point of reference and predict a 40-percent disability rate–– 5.2 million. This leaves 2 million at the worst level of illness–– critical, meaning organ failure or intubation are involved, and I’m going to predict that 65 percent of them (1.3 million) are unable to go to work. This gives us a total of 8.25 million.
If my (conservative) predictions are right, we in the 18–65 sector are going to see “only” five years’ worth of traffic deaths from COVID–19. A big number, and worth taking seriously, but not apocalyptic. Life will, after a few miserable months, return to normal.
Millions of workers–– I predicted 8 million, but it could be half that or double that–– will be, in the wake of non-fatal COVID, unable to return to their jobs, or to get other ones. They’ll try to work–– in this country, they have no other choice–– but they will be unable to meet the performance demands of their jobs, and summarily fired. They will have six-month job gaps in 2020 and no one will want to hire them. Their careers will be disrupted and unfixable. CEOs will insist that they are not discriminating against people who survived COVID, with all the credibility I have in insisting that I have a 16-inch IQ and 200 penises. Legislators might pass laws preventing discrimination against COVID–19 sufferers, or against people with job gaps during 2020, but we all know that employers don’t need to follow laws when they can call themselves “jawb creators” and get a free pass.
Our society runs on “if ya doesn’t work, ya doesn’t eat” model, and millions of people are likely to become unemployably disabled. Some will be unable to work at all. Some will, like me, return mostly to health, and be able to work, but struggle to get hired due to lingering stigma. COVID–19 will pass. Our bosses and owners will tell us that everything’s back to normal (it won’t be) and that we just need to get back to work. But millions of people are going to be unable to do so, and the system will discard them forever.
I should mention a personal bias: I’m a democratic socialist. Often, I read people on the right claiming that “communism killed millions“. It isn’t true. Death attribution is a complex science and you can’t just count every death that’s not by old age as being caused by the economic system in place. If you compare the death tolls of so-called communist regimes (some of which were terrible) to what they would likely have been under similarly repressive regimes (of which there are numerous examples) aligned with imperialist capitalism, the excess death rate of communism is… zero or negative. That’s not to say that communism is flawless or faultless–– only that it does not produce excess deaths over what would have otherwise occurred.
At issue is that we’ve been brainwashed, in the United States, to believe that all people who died of causes excluding old age in communist countries were “killed by communism”, every single one. Meanwhile, when capitalism kills people, it blames those who were killed. “Personal responsibility.” If that Pakistani kid’d had the good sense not to go outside on a sunny day, he wouldn’t have been freedom’d by a drone.
Communism’s public liability is that it never forgets–– and, given the severe failings of societies that called themselves communist, it should not forget. Communism has too much memory and too much history and too much responsibility. Capitalism has no memory and no history and no responsibility.
If we go “back to normal”, as our owners and managers will insist, and neoliberal corporate capitalism remains in force, eight million people are going to find themselves falling to the bottom. Months or years from now, they’ll die needless deaths. We know what the capitalists will already say. Trump already said it: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Not only in the next three months, but in the years following this catastrophe–– as people try to return to their careers and find their jobs gone–– corporate capitalism is going to fail. But is it going to fall? That’s up to us. If we do our jobs, yes. We cannot let our economic system and those who
own employ us, when they try to avoid taking responsibility for their role in this calamity, succeed.
If you haven’t read Part 1, please do so. The story I’m in the process of telling is not one to enter in the middle. It is too strange for that–– it becomes nigh-unbelievable the scrupulous accounting that I have painstakingly provided.
If you’re caught up, welcome to the fourth circle. Five more to go.
In case anyone forgot, Nazis are bad. That hasn’t changed in the past 48 hours.
Chapter 13: The Misappropriation of the Nerd Archetype
During its fifty-year reign, Silicon Valley has created one meaningful invention: the disposable company. That is its true product.
In order to understand how we got here, we need to look into one of the more irritation, inexact archetypes of the modern era–– the nerd, stereotypically associated with hyper-intelligence and middle-class authenticity. A nerd is endearingly harmless, straightforward and socially uncomplicated, and vaguely asexual. Nerds are authentic because they only have one mode of interaction–– they lack the social skill of keeping separate multiple version of themselves. You might find the nerd in your life infuriating, but you can trust her.
In the 2000s and 2010s, this evolved into frank disability appropriation. Software executives–– bullies who swept into the tech industry to exploit nerds–– will often use “aspie chic”, despite being neurotypical, to excuse damage caused by their lack of empathy for other humans. This blurs an important distinction–– between a neuro-socially disabled person’s reduced capacity to appropriately express empathy, and the psychopath’s utter absence of it.
Software executives, for the most part, are people who wanted to be somewhere else. The top third of business school graduates go into hedge funds and develop trading strategies. The middle third go into management consulting or do “soft” work in private equity. The ones sent West to boss nerds around are the leftovers. They don’t like being there, and they view the people working for them as unlikable misfits, but over time they grow to view nerds as a puzzle–– how can this type of person’s earnestness, ego, and social inadequacy be used against him?
One failing of nerds is the desire to avoid “politics” and focus only “on the work”. To say, “I just want to code.” This results in programmers building systems without asking how they’ll be used; it gives us the weapons of mass unemployment, and it gives us the “performance” surveillance inflicted on honest workers.
Nerds, as I’ve noticed, don’t have a lot of leverage in today’s workplace, because they tend to fall behind the curve when it comes to performative emotion. They tend to fail at the effusive over-emotion that American culture expects. Neurotypical people understand that a person’s real job in a corporate workplace is to mirror management’s anxieties, without actually being affected–– to be Xanax in human form. Nerds, to their detriment, are straightforward and legible. They either shut out exterior anxieties (which management reads as disengagement) and focus on the work, or they let the nervousness get inside them, taking a hit to performance. They lack the essential two-facedness that workplace survival requires.
The neurological social ineptitude we observe in people with autism, and in the hyper-intelligent, is not what we find in software executives. Software executives know what the rules and expectations are, and they break not out of unaware earnestness, but as a means of belligerence. The breaches of decorum, the microaggressions, and the brazen flashes of non-empathy, those all use the archetype of a nerd as air cover, but these people are something else.
What characterizes the Silicon Valley software executive is a deep-seated contempt for human “softness”–– for empathy and for what makes us human. His dream company employs zero people–– no emotional cooties–– and makes a trillion dollars per hour.
I’m not against technology itself, of course. At a nuclear or higher technology level, post-scarcity automated luxury communism is the only economic system that stands a chance, and we should race to it. Automation and globalization aren’t evil–– we have to do them right, to distribute the wealth decently. We cannot trust the current financio-technological elite to do it right. If we leave the job to them, we’ll watch as they build increasingly profligate toys, migrate to off-planet bases, strip mine the Earth, and leave the bulk of us to die.
Chapter 14: The Disposable Company
A corporation, legally, has all the rights of an embodied person (corporis). It has none of the weaknesses, however, that come with a human body. It is designed to live forever. It cannot be put in prison. It commands such an obscene share of society’s resources that it can become “too big to fail” and stake an economy’s health on its persistence. It is increasingly unaccountable to the nations in which it operates.
That’s not an artificial person. That’s an artificial god. Gods only die in one way: people stop believing. That’s what killed Ereshkigal, Zeus, Thor, and Enron. Financial markets tell us, in real time, how strongly society believes in each god–– and how willing a society is to overlook the failings of the corrupt priests who take for themselves what is sacrificed to these gods.
In the corporate gods, I’m a nonbeliever. For quite some time, though, I bought in to the venture-funded technology industry (Silicon Valley). I let myself get duped. Silicon Valley is a god designed for nonbelievers.
There are thousands of venture capitalists, but only a few of them matter, and they mostly live in a small geographical area. The ones in the in-crowd, who can arrange publicity and introduce clients, decide as a group what gets funded, what gets bought at large companies, and what gets shut down. Silicon Valley is a factory for lightweight companies that can be inflated if circumstances demand it, but that can also be scrapped or mined if necessary. If the workers form a union, or if a founder goes to jail for domestic violence, the syndicate of investors will decline to participate in the next funding round, and redirect its resources and clients to another option in that space.
By design, these venture-funded companies cannot survive without a new infusion of cash every 18–24 months, because it is not only a one-time investment these companies require. The bosses on Sand Hill Road give them clients and publicity, and hold sway on whether, should the company fail (as most do) to become an independent concern, the founders get a favorable job outcome in the acquisition.
Founders present themselves as entrepreneurs running independent companies, but they function as a middle management layer between the true executives (investors) and the workers. They have no choice but to accept the venture capitalist’s high-risk, aggressive growth plan. If the founders fail to keep the VCs happy, they won’t only lose their companies, but they’ll lose their personal reputations.
Startups are risky, of course, but if you listen to people like Paul Graham, you shouldn’t fear this risk because even failure will advance your career. No, you won’t become an IPO billionaire this time around. You’ll have to take a time-out as a VP at a FaceGoog, and you’ll have to show up at a place once or twice a week, but you’ll be able to recover on your own terms. That’s not how it works at all.
Founders sometimes get “soft landings”–– most “acquired” companies are six months away from failure when bought–– but not because employers value their experience. When the VCs decide that it’s time for one of their companies to die–– they have no interest in funding it further, or sending it more clients, or pulling strings to arrange publicity–– they understand that founders typically don’t agree with the decision, and have some leverage in the shutdown process. Legally, founders are within their rights to fight, but that would delay the inevitable result, and damage reputations in the process. So, instead, the VCs make sure the founders will land in desirable jobs (e.g., VP-level sinecures at the acquiring company, “entrepreneur in residence” roles) and have acceptable financial outcomes. A startup acquisition is usually a hush fee paid to those who will have strong (if unfavorable to their ex-bosses, the VCs) opinions on why the company didn’t work out.
What about employees? What about the engineers who build the product? Oh, they get shanked.
Chapter 15: What Startup Failure Actually Looks Like–– Or: Why Your CTO Drinks
Here’s the picture most people have of business failure. The boss comes in, calls a meeting, and says that the company is defunct and that everyone’s next paycheck is the last. It’s awful, but it isn’t personal. The laid-off worker’s reputation stays intact, and she gets a comparable or better job, because of the experience and contacts she’s acquired. This is what venture capitalists, when they spew claptrap about “embracing risk” and “failing fast”, want people to imagine. Consequently, by this narrative, a startup that is not defunct is nowhere near failure.
In truth, a venture-funded startup’s failure is an ugly, drawn-out process that unfolds over years, often invisible to regular employees, that sinks the careers of innocents by the tens or hundreds before anyone figures out what’s going on.
When a venture-funded company starts to fail, it’s still able to raise money, but it has to get capital from less-connected investors and the terms get worse over time. This is why technology companies are cagey about the details of the “equity” (in truth, illiquid call options on penny stocks) they offer to compensate for low salaries. Deal terms can be mind-bogglingly complex–– I won’t get into that here–– and it’s not uncommon for a startup to be acquired for $250 million while its regular workers, after liquidation preferences and several rounds of financial shenanigans, get nothing.
The failure process of a venture-funded firm occurs in stages. Founders cede control, or initiate “pivots”–– complete changes in what the company exists to do–– and the result is a culture of constant reorganization. Upward mobility is rare because, as the company is forced to accept worse terms to raise capital, executive positions are sold off to friends of investors. Founders of foundering companies insist, while this is going on, that everything’s going exceedingly well, and they blame subordinates for shortfalls.
This results is jobs getting lost, and I’m not talking about layoffs. I’m talking about humiliating terminations “for cause” of innocents. The startup environment is a downhill highway, full of busses barreling down at a hundred miles per hour, and you don’t have to do anything wrong to be thrown under one.
The sociology of a churn-failing startup is fascinating, but for now, just trust me: this is how it always goes. Venture-funded founders do not admit they made mistakes. They blame the people under them. Technology is first to suffer blame, because it’s a soft target. Nerds don’t fight back, and nontechnical investors and bosses and clients don’t understand what they do.
To a young programmer, being a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) seems like a dream job, but it’s actually a high-stress position with a lot of turnover. When the company fails to execute, nerds get the blame.
An old-style company, when it had to lay people off, had the decency to admit that circumstances required it to terminate good workers. Often, firms would work with the press, at their own expense, to ensure that the reputations of departing workers were unharmed. That’s not how Silicon Valley does these things, because it’s run at the highest levels by empathy-deficient psychopaths–– who’ve taken the nerd label to give themselves plausible deniability.
When a tech founder founders, he presents himself as a visionary impervious to mistakes. Alas, his subordinates failed to implement his brilliant ideas. He didn’t fuck up; they sabotaged him!
This industry’s full of 25-year-old companies that claim they’ve never had to lay anyone off. Their history is one of monotonic progress that will never end. Dig deeper, and what you find is that these companies, during bad economic times, laid people off just as non-tech firms do. The difference is: tech firms disguise layoffs as firings for cause or for performance reasons–– protecting management’s reputation, at the expense of now jobless employees.
Technology founders present a mythology in which they either win big (get rich, buy boats) or die as a group. That’s not how it works, though. Startup failure takes 5–10 years to run its course as it usually involves a slow deflation in the founders’ standing in the investor community–– and these people will macerate workers by the hundreds before they go down. The “prima donna” programmers screwed it up. “Technical difficulties.”
Founders survive startup failure if they do right by their investors. If they shut the company down, when and how their bosses ask them to do so, their reputations stay intact and they can be founders again. Workers? Fired, no severance, often for phony performance reasons to disguise a layoff.
The disposable company’s political appeal is right-wing: no matter how badly the workers are treated, it is unlikely to unionize.
Most of Silicon Valley culture and mythology can be understood as anti-union prophylaxis. Programmers are led to believe they’re getting some “revenge of the nerds” against the girls who rejected them in high school by working on Jira tickets and making low six figures. Workers are pitted against each other–– tech versus non-tech, designers versus engineers, employees versus “red badges” (contractors), old hands versus entry-level–– in order to keep false consciousness strong.
Workers in a venture-funded company know that if they unionize, the VCs will simply nonexist it.
Chapter 16: Post-Truth
Corporate capitalism is a post-truth world.
I don’t love Jeb Bush, but his candidacy in 2016 was not ended on substance but because Donald Trump labelled him, “Low Energy Jeb.” What does that mean? It’s hard to say. It doesn’t matter. There need be no factual truth to it. It stuck.
Donald Trump pulled a corporate in presidential politics and it worked.
In Chapter 7, I mentioned the Carly Simon Problem. Someone misinterpreted an old blog post and he stabbed me in the back–– a reliable job reference turned negative. This raises an interesting question: why are negative references so damaging as to render otherwise excellent job candidates unhireable? It has nothing to do with the hiring manager believing the content of the negative reference “is true”. It’s probably not. In the corporate game of promotions, demotions, performance appraisal, and terminations, there is no truth–– there is only power. People get what they get.
Someone who gets a bad reference is unemployable because he “got got”. Was he bad at his job? It doesn’t matter. Donald Trump illustrated this viewpoint when he slagged a literal war hero, John McCain: “I like people who don’t get captured.”
Reputation, in the world of corporate false consciousness, is an entity unto itself. It need nor respect what is true. Donald Trump’s success in life proves this. He has shown no talent in running businesses. He has shown no significant intelligence or creative ability. He has been a degenerate reputationeer for forty years and it has worked. All he needed to kill off most of his political opposition, in his rise to the presidency, was a knack for nasty nicknames.
My personal view is that one should never invest oneself, or trust, in reputation. It’s too easily destroyed. It is a volatile asset, increasingly controlled by the world’s worst people. But it is not only distant, very rich malefactors one must fear. If I were a bad human being, I could render unemployable any young professional I wanted–– with less than $1,000 and in under 48 hours. I won’t get into the strategy, for obvious reasons, but it doesn’t take brilliance. Such a person would be sidelined at his job and, over time, terminated. Prospective employers would Google him, see a slew of rumors and whispers, and pass. Truth doesn’t matter, in the corporate world. No one wants to hire someone with a bad reputation.
Chapter 17: Reputation Management–– Keeping the Gods Alive
Why is reputation so important in the modern economy?
Largely, it’s because the most highly compensated people in our workforce do absolutely nothing. There are workers and watchers–– most white-collar people are watchers who participate (sometimes, indirectly) in the buying and selling of others. Those who do measurable work can be tracked, surveilled, and bargained against. The winning strategy is to get an advanced degree, keep one’s contributions abstract, destroy anyone who has the gall to point out the needlessness of one’s activity, and focus full time on the protection and expansion of one’s own reputation.
The most highly-compensated people justify their consumptive existences by saying they “allocate resources”. That is, they do nothing but “solve”, in political and suboptimal ways, problems that could be solved organically by a less oppressive system.
Napoleon may or may not have called England “a nation of shopkeepers”. Thanks to corporate capitalism, we’ve become one of reputation managers. A worker is promoted, demoted, passed-over, or fired based on his contribution to his boss’s reputation. The middle manager is likewise rewarded or punished for his perceived effect on the reputations of the executives above him. A CEO’s job is to bolster the reputation of the company he supposedly also runs. Innovation is nonexistent; the work itself hardly matters at all. It’s all about reputation, but why?
Above, I mentioned that the modern business corporation isn’t an artificial person but an artificial god. What can kill a god? Disbelief. Whether a true God exists in the abstract is another discussion, but ethnic gods are beasts that exist in society because they have reputations for existing. Corporations are the same.
The business world runs on reputation–– a product of cognitive laziness, social inertia, and a low degree of respect for accuracy in information. Every white-collar worker’s job is the management of some reputation. This is why a rumor about someone, no matter how absurd or demonstrably false, renders him unemployable. The rumor’s existence shows poor performance in the management of the target’s own reputation. How can he be trusted to defend and expand a boss’s image, if he can’t even control his own?
Nothing is true or false, in the scatological agora of corporate life. There is no good or bad content; all is just content. Things are loud or quiet, amplified or ignored. Rank begets rank. The longest eigenvector wins the right to poke you in the eye, or somewhere else if it so desires.
Chapter 18: Is the U.S. at Risk of State-Level Fascism?
I have no love for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush. This said, their professional ethics, while in office, were world-class compared to those of the typical corporate executive. Richard Nixon resigned over offenses that, in the private sector, would be everyday office politics. Government, we hold to a higher standard.
The Age of Reason, as begun in the European 1700s, led to the institution of rules-based, rational governments operating on laws rather than clerical fiat or the whims of charismatic individuals. The rich have largely accepted rational government as beneficial, the alternative being unpredictable; but in the 1800s when this led to discussion of rational economy–– also known as socialism–– they did what they could to slam the breaks on progress. National governments could be democratic, constitutional, and legalistic… this would make their operation slow-paced and “boring”, which would be good for business… so long as no one interfered with the boss’s “right to manage” on the factory floor.
Rational government and pre-rational economic principles coexisted for some time, but modern technology has made this untenable. One or the other must go. Which?
The Age of Reason has always had its skeptics. A pervert and not-even-middling French intellectual, Donatien Alphonse François–– also known as the Marquis de Sade–– managed to gain relevance by his inflammatory anti-rationalism. He believed that, given the human thirst for power and delight in the suffering of others, rational government could not exist. (He was wrong.) Donald Trump, our first truly corporate president, has doubled down on anti-rationalism. In a perverse irony, his supporters find him to be “a straight shooter” even though half of what he says is untrue. He uses mendacity as a power move (a business-world trick he has, over decades, perfected) and to some people, by doing so he communicates the only truth that matters–– that he’s in charge.
Fascists do not believe in truth. They only believe in power. Power decides what is true; power makes the rules. Donald Trump was impeached (unsuccessfully) for abuse of power. To a fascist, the term “abuse of power” makes no sense. In their view, we who are out of power are “losers and haters” using the term abuse toward power because we do not have it. To a fascist, no rules should exist over power.
Donald Trump is racist, misogynistic, self-indulgent, mendacious, volatile, deleterious, incompetent, and stupid. Is he a fascist?
Chapter 19: What Is Fascism?
I described earlier that no one is truly a nihilist, because meaning voids get filled. A person can be unprincipled, but that is different. Systems can be nihilistic or even destructive of value (cf., corporate capitalism) but, in an individual, nihilism is untenable.
Political nihilism, when observed, has a flavor of might making right. This goes back to antiquity. Trial by combat, on its own terms, solves two problems at once: the party that wins goes free; guilt passes to the deceased. Everyone wins because no one is alive to lose. It’s a great system if you don’t believe in truth.
Fascism, of course, isn’t just moral nihilism. There is more to fascism than a belief that might makes right; the notion is celebrated. Furthermore, while fascism is fundamentally empty, it presents itself not as nihilistic but as a rebellion against nihilism and relativism. Fascism promises answers. It is decadent and empty but blames society’s decay and emptiness on vulnerable minorities, or external enemies, and by doing this, it fills the failing society’s purpose void with hatred.
Corporate capitalism has little apparent interest in state-level fascism. It is amoral and nihilistic, but it is too lethargic to overthrow democratic societies if there is no profit in them. Much of what drives fascism to emerge in its wake, as it did in 1920s Italy and 1930s Germany–– and as it could have done in 1930s America–– is that people would rather live with a bad purpose than live, as they would under corporate capitalism, with no purpose.
Fascism doesn’t simply assert that might makes right. It celebrates the notion. Like philosophical sadism, it confronts something ugly in human nature (the problem of evil) that stymies well-intended philosophers and theologians and, instead of treating the malady as a flaw to worked around, embraces it and declares it good.
Every time we encounter another person, we decide whether to cooperate or compete. Societies generate rules to determine whether we favor one or the other. A nation might use a market (competition) to price commodities but institute a basic income or welfare state (cooperation). Representative democracy holds that we cooperate as citizens, but that those who wish to gain and hold power must compete for it. Competition, then, is introduced to make power accountable to the governed.
Fascism is the dual opposite of that. The people are divided against each other, constantly measured and compared, and locked in endless battles for artificially scarce resources. Power, at the same time, unifies. State, cultural, religious, economic, and corporate power congeal into an inflexible fasces.
A fascist society introduces competition to make people accountable to the ruling elite. There will be competition in high places, but it must only be seen from above. Fascism’s ruling class must present a unified front at all times. There will only be one political party, one leader, and one vision for society. All else is the enemy–– the other.
In the corporate world, people with bad bosses think they can improve their situation by appealing to HR or a higher-level manager. I have never seen anyone make that work. Usually, they get themselves fired. To a fascist, the attempt to divide power against itself is unforgivable.
Chapter 20: Why Corporates Might Favor State-Level Fascism
It’s said that if you scratch a capitalist, a fascist bleeds.
Corporates, outwardly, like to play both sides. They take on liberal identity politics and conservative economics, while striving for an image of centrist pragmatism. They will almost always, however, favor a rightward lurch over even modest leftist progress. Why? They view fascism as an in-one-country problem. They will move family if safety requires, reallocate capital to take advantage, and wait out the storm. Genuine social progress is more of a threat to their capital and social status, and–– worse yet–– likely to have longevity. What is “socialism” before it is implemented, people like once it is there, and it becomes impossible to roll back.
The United States has always associated leftist politics with radicalism, but in our recent history, we’ve faced orders of magnitudes more danger from thee right. The Weather Underground, at its worst, was a nonentity compared to the horror of the Ku Klux Klan. We live under active threat–– school shootings, theater shootings, church shootings, synagogue shootings–– from a belligerent, far-right counterrevolution the corporates manufactured to divide the proletariat against itself, for the benefit of the ruling class, and to distract people from the widespread, but notionally centrist, looting of society by the executive class.
Why do corporates present themselves as centrists? Frame dragging. They want to nudge the Overton Window to the right, but they do so by holding on to the zero point. Despite Machiavelli, they’d rather be loved than feared. Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince pertained to an individual seeking to block short- and medium-term challenges to his power, but an owning class that wants to hold power forever will prefer, in peacetime, to make itself loved. That is the purpose false consciousness serves. In event of active conflict, however, they will resort to fear.
The way I’ve discussed fascism may sound bloodless. With my focus on the unification of the ruling class–– and workers competing to serve the masters–– it might seem that I’m downplaying fascism’s end-stage horrors: racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, belligerent nationalism, and genocide. Not so. Those emerge as a matter of course. A fascist leader’s goal is not to rack up a body count per se, but to hold power at all costs. This said, the people governed will not tolerate ceaseless competition without a narrative of expansion. If the poor figure out that they’re being pitted against each other for the benefit of the rich, they’ll revolt. Instead, says the fascist, they’re being prepared for a grand conflict, an upcoming war–– in which they are predestined to win, because of national, racial, religious, or cultural supremacy–– in which the society will prosper and expand (Lebensraum) through the vanquishment of undeserving, “inferior” people.
Narratives in the startup’s corporate playbook are not especially different. The “lean” (understaffed and underfunded, with workers artificially divided against each other) startup is destined to drink the milkshake of its “bloated” competitor because “We have a better culture”, because “All they do over there is play politics”, because “No one over there works Sundays.” Sure, many of the workers–– the weak, the unworthy–– will burn our or get fired; but in the end, the startup will demolish its competitors because of its superior “culture”.
Chapter 21: Masculine Crisis
Economic systems like ours produce epidemics of masculine failure. High-status, rich males never need to grow up (that is, become men); low-status men are denied the opportunity. Men and women lose.
I recognize that I need to tread with care here. I make no absolute claims about men or women. I categorically reject any line of thinking that declares one sex superior to the other, or that encourages the stigmatization, exclusion, or punishment of those who do not conform to sex or gender roles.
It’s an inoffensive, common leftist position that gender is entirely socially constructed, but I don’t think that’s true. Much of it is, of course. That Brian is a boy’s name, and Emily is a girl’s name, that’s socially constructed. That pink is a feminine color, or that truck driving is a masculine job, that’s socially constructed. That said, there are patterns that recur in societies to such an extent as to suggest sex-linked differences in the aggregate–– in probability distributions, even if not relevant at the individual level.
I agree that gender roles do not suit everyone. This said, if one looks at the cultural mainstream, one finds deep-seated attitudes that, right or wrong, will not be abandoned by 90 percent of the population at once. Heterosexual men, in general, want to see themselves as masculine, and are attracted to women they perceive as feminine. Heterosexual women, in general, want to see themselves as feminine and are attracted to men they perceive as masculine. I’m making no statement on what should be–– only one on what is.
Corporate capitalism has a problem. It requires men to live on their reputations. That is not masculine. Subordinate men, in a courtier society, are seen as obsequious and supernumerary. Men do not want to see themselves that way; women are not attracted to such men. For this reason alone, corporate capitalism is unstable.
To be clear, I don’t think women should have to live that way either. I focus on the masculine side of this crisis not because that, in my view, is what drives the lurch toward fascism. Men who support demagogues like Trump do so out of rage at their emasculation by corporate capitalism. Women who support demagogues like Trump do so out of rage at the destruction of men in their lives.
Masculinity is, and will always be, the weak point of hierarchical courtier societies. Traditionally masculine endeavors (hunting, exploring, defending) do not pay. Corporate capitalism must sell the narrative that making money is a sex act. A real man provides, even at the expense of his own comfort. If this means he peddles drugs to children, or builds bombs, that’s what he does. If this means he supports a fascist regime, that’s what he does. Freedom is just another disposable comfort of lower rank than his obligation to “be a man” and provide.
The problem, of course, is that court life is emasculating. Men who earn their coin by subordinating to other men are useless. Women are the reproductive bottleneck, not us. In our role in the reproductive equation, we’re replaceable.
Corporate capitalism tells men they must provide, but only leaves them one way to do it, which is to be emasculated by other men. Eventually, men figure out that they’ve been duped. They get angry. Equally angry are the women who, in a decaying society where male adulthood is increasingly rare, cannot find husbands.
Is it emasculating to be an organizational subordinate? Five thousand years of human history has produced exactly one counterexample, one context in which a man can be subordinate and fully masculine–– the archetype of the soldier.
We see yet another reason why fascists love war.
I could write thousands of words on toxic masculinity, but I’d rather not. It’s disgusting and depressing. Our economic system induces toxic masculinity. The degradation of the feminine distracts men from the game being played against them and women both. At the same time, toxic masculinity is what keeps the corporate system going. Inertia does not suffice to explain it. The corporate system is always busy. It propagates false consciousness, enforces a social hierarchy, resists challenges, and bolsters the image of a hereditary elite disguised as meritocratic ubermenschen. That’s not a conspiracy–– it’s all done in the open, and legal even if its methods aren’t–– but it is a lot of work. Who keeps it going? What motivates the plutocrats and corporate executives who (unlike us) could easily retire from the world’s shittiest mini-game, but keep playing?
For the most part, the system’s raison d’être is to procure sexual access for rapacious, disgusting men. Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and Donald Trump wouldn’t have a lot to offer women if they had to compete on an even footing with socioeconomically inferior but otherwise superior men like me (and like 99% of my male readership). Corporate capitalism is a way for these odious men, using paperwork and poverty, to disempower their competition.
The reason we do not have health insurance in the United States is that, in 1947, a bunch of racist Southern Senators fought a movement that would result in desegregated hospitals. Millions of people have died of lousy or nonexistent health insurance because a bunch of now-dead, inadequate white men feared losing “their” women to… not the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Chapter 22: Is Donald Trump Fascist?
This might be the only section where I don’t know the answer. Is Donald John Trump a fascist? I don’t know.
He is heinous and bizarre. We could be debating fifty years from now whether he is a fascist or opportunist. His mental health is questionable, but I’m not qualified to opinee on that topic. He seems to have no coherent ideology. There are fascists around him–– that’s clear. There are also opportunists around him. There may be one or two noble souls putting his career at risk in a sacrificial effort to limit Trump’s damage. As for whether the man holds fascism in his heart, we’ll tackle that some other day.
Objectively, we can say that Donald Trump has normalized behaviors and practices that threaten democracy, making the job easier for any fascist who follows him. What about capability, though? Is he capable of making himself a fascist threat to this country? Three years ago, I would have said, “No, absolutely not.” On that, I must admit my confidence has waned.
Having studied fascism, I would have said in 2017 that Donald Trump would be unable to pull the requisite image off. Adolf Hitler was a wealthy, self-indulgent, flatulent buffoon who had a number of trysts, and Mussolini’s sexual perversions are now legendary, but the public images these men presented were more in line with stoic, traditional masculinity than the flagrantly toxic variety of Berlusconi, Bloomberg, and Trump. It was all a lie, but the Fuhrer presented himself as a simple-living celibate bachelor, “married to Germany”. He himself said that a politician should never let himself be photographed in a bathing suit.
Donald Trump, for a contrast, lived like a clown for his entire adult life. I did not think, in 2017, that such a man could sustain enthusiasm of any kind, fascist or otherwise, for more than a couple years. I expected his movement to die out as he became part of the establishment he railed against.
So far, time has proven me wrong. Toxic masculinity hasn’t been a liability for Trump. He has doubled down on it, to no cost to himself. Fascism has proven itself protean.
This acknowledged, I will not say that Donald Trump poses no fascist threat to our society. He clearly does. But, I continue in my belief that he hasn’t taken the most efficient or obvious route to fascism. In 2016, he nearly lost. His approval rating is lousy. If he wins in 2020, it will have had more to do with Democratic incompetence than any appealing personal traits of his.
All of this said, and recognizing that a fascist can play either to traditional or to Trump’s overtly toxic masculinity, the greatest fascist threat in my view comes not from Trump, but from Silicon Valley. We could see, in 2024, a young technology founder running on an image of centrist competence, with a sterling reputation (because anyone who would say bad things about him has been silenced), who will present himself as “post-political” and an antidote to “these polarized times”. I would imagine that he would avoid the public self-indulgence of Donald Trump, while nonetheless bolstering his personal reputation (at the expense of others) using the same dirty tricks he learned in the corporate world.
Whatever Trump’s fate, what Trump represents will not go away. The corporate class has taken notes, and continues to take notes, on what works and what doesn’t. The owners of everything are watching his deleterious presidency and learning what can be gotten away with. So long as corporate capitalism remains our economic system, we shall always be one bad roll of the dice away from nation-level fascism.
Fascists fight dirty. I know, because I’ve seen how they fight.
For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to call militant fascists, Nazis, differentiating them from the abstract notion of a person who might support fascism but not participate in enforcement. The far-right militants I’m about to discuss are not members of the German NDSAP, because it no longer exists. They may or may not be in that nonexistent racial category called “Aryan”, although most of them are white-male supremacists. The people on the intellectual fringe who spout odious politics on the internet, we’ll stick to calling fascists. The enforcers and dirtbags who–– let’s say–– send death threats to leftists and feminists, or who cause people to lose job opportunities they were qualified for, those are the modern-day Nazis. We will have to fight them.
Chapter 23: Panic Disorder (Trigger Warning–– Mental Illness)
If state-level fascism comes to the United States, I will be one of the first to die.
This issue, for me, is not about so-called virtue signaling. Whether I’m a virtuous person, that’s for another discussion. To be in this fight, for me, isn’t a choice.
I can’t become “not political”. In a more liberal time, I wrote political content under my real name. At this point, there is no harm in my continuing to do so. I am an outed leftist. My existence is political. I’ve been doxxed over and over. I assume I have no privacy. I don’t feel like I have anything to hide.
Far-right operatives got me banned from Hacker News and Quora on defamatory pretenses. Far-right operatives have sent me death threats. Far-right operatives have caused me to lose job opportunities even after successful interviews, leading to offers. The Nazis know who I am; they will not forget me.
Of course, I chose to speak politically in the open. There is no such thing as an “ethnic leftist”. To share my views is something I decided to do, not something I was born into. Were that the only factor pinning me inflexibly to one side, in any future conflict with fascism, I could not say “The fight chose me.” I would have to fess up to having entered it.
So, here’s the other part of the story.
I have a chronic neurological disability, manageable but not curable.
March 3, 2008, was an unseasonably warm, sunny day in New York. I was recovering well from an ordinary bout of influenza. Around 2:30 that afternoon, a stabbing sensation erupted in my throat, spreading throughout my body. Laryngospasm. Couldn’t breathe. Tried to drink water. Couldn’t swallow. I was sure that I was going to die, in front of my co-workers, right there on the floor. A woman, able to see my distress, called emergency services.
Diagnosis: panic attack. There was a physical cause to my illness; more on that later.
The second attack, on March 10, was the worst I ever experienced. I had written the March 3 attack off as a one-off, but now I realized I would keep having these things. It came in waves, for 23 hours, until fatigue took over after midnight the next day. During that one, I considered admitting myself to a psychiatric hospital.
I had more, tens or hundreds, over March and April. Often, I could not eat a meal because I could not swallow. After some time, I found a competent doctor, an ENT in Chinatown who found a bacterial plaque, left over from the flu–– an easy problem to treat.
Problem is, once the body and brain are “trained” into the panic process, it becomes a thing that can happen, without warning, at any time. Panic attacks, for the most part, aren’t “about” anything–– nothing in daily life merits such an extreme bodily reaction. These attacks don’t often have clear triggers and, at this point in my life, I don’t think panic is the right word for it. I don’t actually panic. I’ve cycled through the five hundred or so symptoms this horrible disease can throw–– chest pain, shortness of breath, auditory hallucinations, derealization, tachycardia, tremors, tingling, intrusive thoughts, sudden depression, vomiting, akathisia–– and, having survived all of this nonsense, I’m no longer scared of these attacks. It took me years to get to this point, mind you, but they’re more like severe headaches than anything that would cause me to “panic”.
Truth is, if I have a panic attack in public, I handle the episode better than anyone else. I’ve been through it, hundreds of times. I know that these things end.
I won’t mince words, though. A true panic attack is extremely unpleasant. Even now, I’d probably pay $500 not to have one. I would wager that a quarter of the population has had the movie version of a panic attack–– racing heart, hot flashes, mild visual disturbances, nausea and vomiting. I consider that a mere anxiety attack and would put it at 2.25 on the panic scale, as I’ve come to know it. At 4, the level I have about once per year, we talking about symptoms that would put a civilian in the emergency room–– if he could form the words to get himself there. At 6, every system in your body’s screaming, and you’re begging God for your own quietus… and you’ll be sore for a week afterward in muscles you didn’t know you had. As for eight… well an 8 compares unfavorably to a bad salvia extract trip. It’s worse because, at the end of it, you know that it came from you, not some stupid chemical you ingested.
I haven’t had worse than 5 or so since 2010. In my experience, this sort of thing gets worse, and then it gets better.
Chapter 24: One Hit Point
I mentioned my mistake, in summer 2008, of leaving finance.
It became clear that I was not suited to work at a trading desk. By necessity, prop trading is done in a noisy, open-plan environment. I despise the software industry’s use of open-plan offices–– for programmers, they are unnecessary and qualify as hostile architecture–– but there are a couple jobs that necessitate them. I’ll defend trading firms for using open spaces, because seconds matter in that game, and a traditional office layout would be untenable.
What irony that I left finance because of open-plan offices, just before the plague of Agile de-professionalization, one-sided transparency, and (of course) open-plan fetishism hit the software industry.
I never had an attack as bad as the second one, on March 10, 2008. The dreaded Big One that would render me permanently insane, never came because it does not exist. That said, attacks continued to come.
A severe, punishing experience leads your mind to look for patterns, even if none exist. This produces phobias. If you have an attack on a crowded subway, you might mistakenly attribute it to the environment. At bottom (autumn 2009) I was a shut-in. Home was safe. Work was mostly safe. I could go back home (Pennsylvania) with preparation, but I’d sometimes have a nasty attack on the train. I didn’t date, because any time my heart sped up, the fear of an attack (anticipatory anxiety) would hit me. “Safe spaces”, as they do, got smaller and smaller, because no such thing exists. As Confucius said: Wherever you go, there you are.
No one ever intends to become a shut-in, to become agoraphobic. It happens one day at a time. To have panic attacks on a regular basis produces lethargy, apathy, and aversion. Dysfunctional cognition and self-reinforcing superstition accrete over time. Eventually, the entire world feels unsafe for no good reason.
It was not easy, but I built myself back from scratch–– recovery from 1 hit point. Limit break after limit break. I re-established the confidence to do ordinary things. I started dating again and got married. There was a first-again airplane ride, a first-again ride on a bike, a first-again drive, a first-again long hiking trip. I rebuilt myself from zero and, in the end, built a better self than what had been there before.
Petty phobias disappear when you beat the monsters, as I have. Public speaking is said to be the number-one fear of most people. (Death ranks second.) It’s not an issue for me. I took up scuba diving in 2015. In 2018, I swam with sharks (no cage) under 78 feet of sea water, off the coast of Honduras. That’s not as dangerous as it sounds, but it seems to impress people, so we’ll use it.
I must speak on the issue of safety. I can drive during an attack–– it’s unpleasant, but it’s not unsafe. However, there are things, given my diagnosis, that I will never do. In open water, I can safely ascend from 130 feet (4 minutes) in event of unexpected neuro-adrenal fuckery. Cave and wreck diving, those are out for good.
Chapter 25: Fearlessness (?)
The petty fears that restrain most people do not faze me.
It’s said that death and public speaking are the human creature’s two biggest fears. Death, I haven’t done yet, despite some half-hearted attempts by others. I can’t speculate on how much fear I’ll experience when I get to that point. In the abstract, I have no dread of it. If there is a hereafter, I look forward to meeting it; if there is not, I will not exist to be disappointed.
Public speaking, that one’s easier. I like it. I’m good at it.
Funny thing is, stress itself doesn’t cause the dysphoria that turns into panic. I can handle swimming with sharks, biking in heavy traffic, and the physical sequelae of an extreme workout. When there is purpose to the stress, I handle it well–– better than most people. It’s gnawing, pointless stress that angers me.
Inoculation to extreme, underworld-level fear has left me immune to the petty fears that rule most people. That is an asset in life. In corporate undeath, it is not. One achieves social success in the corporate world by mirroring management’s anxieties without becoming affected–– because if one becomes as dysfunctional as they are, one will be unable to perform. I am not good at this. I can, as corporate managers might desire, induce fear in myself based on minor discomfort and meaningless shit–– I am diagnosed as having a brain far too good at that–– but I have learned that it is unhealthy.
I’ve faced my own death, thousands of times in a body-brain mock execution, and quite a few life-threatening situations I haven’t talked about. Given this, I can’t force myself to care about “Sprint 31”. If a director’s worst fear is explaining to his VP that his software, version 7.0, doesn’t support the blink tag… he and I are not going to relate well.
I’m terminally one-faced. Mirroring another person’s anxieties without being affected by them, which is the most important office survival skill, is one I lack.
I don’t handle the open plan office well.
Stress? Under 80 feet of water, surrounded by sharks, with a compressed-air canister at my back, I’m fine. Diving is pretty safe if you follow the rules and keep your wits about you. Worst-case scenario, I’m 160 seconds from the surface. Giving a presentation in front of hundreds, on three hours of sleep… no issue. If my nervous system bitches out, I’ll play it off as a headache.
The mandatory 9-hour economy-class flight from nowhere to nowhere, five times per week, is not physically stressful. Its main demand is that I sit in a chair, to be seen by other people, and hold in any farts. Hardly Herculean, that. The problem is not the level of stress–– it is that the stress is so pointless.
Chapter 26: The Open-Plan Virus
I won’t opine on Jordan Peterson’s lobster theories, but it is true that we as humans are attuned to social status. Public speaking is stressful, but it’s a positive stress–– the stress of giving a compelling presentation, of having something to say that merits the high-status position of being the speaker. There is a job to be done; there is a point to the stress.
Office culture is not illegible. To be visible from behind is a sign of low status. Though tech companies boast of their “egalitarian” office architectures, the truth is that you can figure out exactly who matters and who doesn’t by counting lines of sight. Yes, the managers work in the open space, but they all have walls and windows at their back. This is how the company shows they are trusted, supported, and (no pun intended) backed up. The people whose monitors are visible to the largest number of people are the most disliked, least trusted, and first to be fired.
Additionally, it is infantilizing, the claim that open-plan offices are egaliatarian, because executives can come and go as they please, while workers cannot.
Open-plan offices are not productive. People get less done, perform worse on tasks requiring concentration, and get sick more often. Technology executives cite “collaboration” as a reason for using these horrible offices. That’s bullshit. The topic has been studied to death. People do not become more collaborated when they are enervated by constant unwanted visibility and contact. In truth, these offices breed low-grade hostilities due to noises, odors, and invasions of personal space.
What’s the real reason for technology executives to prefer open-plan offices? Never assume malevolence where ignorance suffices; I think 70 percent of it is that these offices are cheap, in all senses of the word. Another 10 percent is showmanship. The open-plan fetish began in the startup world as a means for founders to showcase how many busy nerds they have working under them. In this light, open-plan programmers are valued as carbon-based office furniture more than for the code they produce. (Having seen the quality of code these startups produce, I… nah, let’s skip this one.) A further 10 percent is classic managerial malignancy: control and surveillance. Finally, the last 10 percent of the motivation is the diametrical opposite of “fostering collaboration”. If personal space becomes another artificially scarce resource for the proles to fight over, they will grow to loathe each other’s company, and this drives to zero the probability of their cohesion around collective interests.
Open-plan offices, for programmers, exist to humiliate them–– to remind them that they’re unimportant and untrusted.
In that environment, my skin crawls, because I feel like I don’t belong, because in fact I know I don’t belong. In an open-plan, Agile Scrotum software shop, where it’s normal for people to interview for their own jobs every day as if they were interns or on PIPs, I feel like an adult sitting at the kid’s table.
Chapter 27: Trump’s America
A lot happened in 2016.
Far-right attacks on my career became common. I had to start hiding my tracks. I skipped a couple tech conferences because I couldn’t safely go to the cities where they were held. I was assaulted twice.
By this point, I was planning a “techxit” from the private-sector software industry. I had a strategy that would have probably worked but, due to post-2016 dysfunction in the public sphere, was unsuccessful. During this time, I joined one of the so-called “artificial intelligence” startups, a venture-funded outfit in Reston, Virginia, as a software engineering manager.
I’ve wrestled, over the past month, with the question of whether to name this company. Its founders are absolute fecal garbage. If I could name them without collateral damage, I would. If a time comes when that is the case, perhaps I will. The operation was one of chaos induced from the top by a culture of childish management and dishonesty to investors and employees alike. Why have I chosen not to name this company? Past experience.
The problem, when you slag a company, is that the people responsible get off. Barring a criminal conviction or an eight-figure lawsuit, the scumbags will always be supported and protected by other scumbags. The people responsible for a company’s terrible culture, they get off scot-free. The ones at risk of being hurt are regular workers–– fellow proletarians–– who did nothing wrong, but now have a tarnished name on their résumé.
Soon enough, I will expose by name an unethical organization (not an ex-employer) because it will be in the public interest for me to do so. In the case of this so-called “artificial intelligence” company, I see no public-interest reason to name it. I have ready made its investors aware of the founders’ unethical behaviors. I have done my job.
I ran a team of 17 people, and I must say this. The people working for me were professional, capable, intelligent, and all-around great to work with. It was a pleasure to have such a high calibre of people under me, and I would hire any one of them again. Not one of them is at fault, in any way, for the ethical faults of the company where they and I worked.
Like most software companies in the late 2010s, this outfit used an open-plan office and discouraged working from home. The environment was tolerable, for a while, because as a manager I had the right to use one of the unallocated side offices (“breakout” spaces). As a supervisor, I sometimes used it for one-on-one conversations. As a person who diligently tried to excel at his work–– and did, in fact, excel at it–– I sometimes used the side office to get my job done. As a person with a neurological disability, I sometimes used it to ride out an attack.
Chapter 28: Open-Planic!
Panic attacks, as I’ve said, aren’t “about” anything, although patterns exist. Phobias develop because one anxiety about panic attacks can, itself, induce panic attacks. Trying not to have a panic attack can, in fact, cause one.
Open-plan offices and micromanagement (Agile) exist on the theory that petty inducements of anxiety nudge the lethargic and unmotivated into marginal employability. That may be. I’m not an expert on the lethargic and unmotivated. For self-motivated people like me, though, those petty insults reduce performance. We don’t need to be watched; we’re at our best when left alone.
Such offices create anxiety in the neurotypical, but they feed into the anticipatory anxiety, the anxiety about anxiety. Have a panic attack in your living room, and you’ll probably be fine in an hour. Have a panic attack in an open-plan office, and you’ll be working somewhere else in 6 months. Perhaps they’ll find a way to fire you. More likely, you’ll be demoted and gimp-tracked. I’ve had it happen to me; I’ve seen it happen to other people. Bosses hear “panic attack” and do not think “manageable neurological problem” but “personal weakness”.
I dislike the term “mental illness”. I think it gets a key thing wrong. It is not the mind (or, if you will, soul) that is sick, in a person with depression, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, schizophrenia, or any other of these terrible diseases. We’ve moved beyond the four humors, and it’s time to move beyond sick souls.
These diseases are physical, but have mental symptoms. Thing is, we know today that most physical diseases have some mental symptoms. The lack of a clear causative mechanism does not merit a leap into superstition and stigma. The truth is that disorders like mine deserve the status of “boring” health problems like atrial fibrillation or cluster headaches. They’re unpleasant and can be dangerous, but they deserve neither the romance nor stigma assigned to them.
One of the reasons panic disorder gets easier to deal with, over the years, is that one learns that the attacks are physically harmless. I’ve had them while driving–– hellish, but not unsafe. Problem is, in the corporate workplace, a panic attack is not harmless. It can become cause for the bosses to presume personal weakness or reduced leverage, leading to termination or reduced opportunities–– gimp-tracking.
The rule of the open-plan office is simple: don’t panic. Don’t panic. DO NOT PANIC. Don’t panic. Panic? Don’t panic. Don’t panic don’t panic ¿panic? don’t panic they’ll see you they’ll judge you. DO NOT PANIC WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t don’t panic. DON’T PANIC YOU CRAZY MOTHERFUCKER. Breathe. Not so fast. Not so slow. Breathe. If you forget to breathe you die. If you breathe too fast you panic you lose your job. Don’t. Don’t panic. Stop staring it’s creepy don’t panic. Stop it stop the panic this cannot happen here it is getting the better of you. Don’t panic don’t panic stop your panic they all see you. They all see you. You haven’t written a line of code for ¡¡¡13!!! minutes you panicky broken motherfucker you soon-to-be-jobless motherfucker they see you they see you as a they see you they ¡see! you. Panic, don’t. Don’t. PANIC. You cannot grasp the true form of… et cetera et cetera.
One might ask: is there medication for this sort of thing? There is. High doses of SSRIs reduce the frequency and intensity of the attacks, although the side effects are unpleasant. Benzodiazepines are a good short-term treatment, but they’re not a panacea. For one thing, it takes time for them to have an effect–– you take the drug to put an upper bound on the attack’s duration, and to smooth your recovery, but there is no way to abort an in-progress attack. You still have to get through the next five or ten minutes.
Furthermore, regular use of benzodiazepines (say, for prophylaxis rather than treatment) carries a high risk of tolerance and dependency. These drugs are a lifesaver when needed, but addiction is hellish and I do not use them except when necessary. My first-line prophylaxis, if I begin to feel raw at 2:00 in the afternoon, is to take a side office. Perhaps the attack will never come. If it comes, I’ll ride it out and get back to work as soon as I can.
At this particular company, the fake-news AI company in Reston, that’s what I did: used a side office. Most of my team was remote, so it didn’t matter where I worked. Other people began to use side offices, too. I did not intervene; who was I to say they didn’t have a legitimate reason for using them? (I hate open plan offices and think everyone has a legitimate reason to break away.) Anyway, executives took notice of people using the side offices to get work done, and HR got involved. I was labelled the one who “started the trend”, which I suppose technically I was.
The CTO and my immediate manager pulled me into a meeting, late in the afternoon on January 25, 2018. I was admonished about the use of side offices, even though I (and possibly others who used them) had legitimate reasons to do so. I was told that the CEO had “concerns” about the frequency of my doctor visits–– not for panic disorder, but for a physical problem that would later turn out to be gallbladder disease necessitating emergency surgery. Changes, therefore, would be made to my job duties.
Some of the changes I agreed with. I had a large team doing complex work and was excited about the prospect of running a smaller team and becoming an “individual contributor” (non-manager). I counter-offered with a proposal that was mostly identical, except with my non-managerial contributions in data science–– a natural fit for an AI specialist at a company that claims to do AI. The CTO’s refusal of this offer, and his explanation, made it clear that he was aware of my disability and presumed lesser leverage on the job market–– the ol’ gimp track.
Recognizing the obvious demotion, I confirmed in writing that I suffer from a disability, but would continue to give advance notice of doctor appointments (which, as I planned, might be interviews).
I was fired the next morning. Illegal? Yes. Expected? Not so quickly, no. Usually, when a company wants to fire someone for an illegal reason, it offers severance in exchange for an agreement not to sue or disparage the company. This firm, instead, decided to place a bet on extortion.
Hold on to your hats. Keep your arms, legs, and tentacles inside the car at all times.
Chapter 29: Octopus Royalty
Not long after this, I spoke to an attorney. She described my case, barring perjury, as a slam dunk. The problem, of course, is that “barring perjury, 100 percent” does not mean a sure thing.
Suing an employer is not like suing a tire manufacturer. You’re going up against an organization that can–– and, knowing the founders of this company, I am sure they would–– threaten people with their jobs into lying about your performance and professional ethics. Unless you think a seven-figure award is possible–– and for a highly-skilled 35-year-old whose disability is mild and intermittent, that ain’t likely–– you are often better off to make like a frozen and let it go, especially when the adversary is a startup that has the option of just not paying. If you win a judgment against a FaceGoog, you’ll probably collect. Against a money-losing startup? Remember what I said about a disposable company. It’s hard to collect on a judgment, after suing a hole in the ground.
Nonetheless, the company perceived it had a lot to fear from me, so they made threats–– the usual negative publicity, frivolous litigation, nothing I took too seriously. What I did take seriously was when my ex-manager said things that were not true about my departure to former colleagues. I informed him that I would not tolerate illegal, defamatory statements.
Threats continued. I dug up what I could about the founders and executives; they dug up a few things (minor shit) about me. Most of what I found doesn’t matter and is not well-enough sourced for me to get into it, even without naming them. I will only say this. One of the people involved in their extortion effort, I was able to link to a racist, far-right organization that advocates violence.
Great. Nazis in my life.
Chapter 30: Techxit Achieved (?)
That was how 2018 began. After that, I did some consulting, some weightlifting, and some work on Farisa. The next part of this story occurs mainly in May, 2019.
Before 2016, this would have been front-page news in the Washington Post, the kind of scandal that would have led to public resignations of top management. Now, we’re so used to public dysfunction that I don’t know if it even registers. But it’s my story, so I’m going to tell it.
Given my views of the technology industry, it shouldn’t be surprising that I tried to get out of it. In April 2019, I applied for a job at the MITRE Corporation, a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) in MacLean, Virginia.
For reasons that will become clear, I will stick to what is factual.
My application led to a phone interview on April 26, one that was mutually successful. I left the conversation excited about opportunities MITRE had to offer–– about returning to R&D. MITRE invited me to an in-person interview on May 10. In about three days, I put together a presentation on set theory and why it matters to computer science. I felt like I did very well, and MITRE seemed to agree. On May 13, I received a job offer from MITRE, to join as a senior simulation and modeling engineer on June 3.
I accepted the offer that day, and put in my two-week notice at my then-employer on May 17. So far, standard job-change story.
I was thrilled to be out of the corporate world. Agile and the short-term nonsense, no more. Instead of working on sprint work for which I’m more than a decade overqualified… I’d get to work in R&D again.
Techxit successful? Or would this be like Michael Corleone’s “just when I thought I was out” moment?
Chapter 31: Nazis in McLean
“Out” leftists, feminists, and antiracists deal with people on the far right who follow our careers and try to interfere. In the startup world, it’s 50–50 whether you’ll still have a job, after that happens. It’s not that employers are dumb enough to consider right-wing keyboard warriors a reliable source–– they just don’t want to make a stand.
I do not consider radical the assertion that MITRE, an FFRDC that relies on the trust of the government–– the trust of the American people–– should be held to a higher standard than a fly-by-night tech startup.
“Mr. W” would have been my manager at MITRE. A leak of information occurred, between May 14 and May 30, and a far-right operative–– likely the one discussed in Chapter 30, because no one else fits the pattern of motive and opportunity–– leaked to Mr. W that I suffer from, and have been treated for, panic disorder.
Mr. W emailed me on May 30 to arrange a time when we could discuss what he falsely represented as a benign administrative detail. “Nothing to worry about,” he said.
We spoke at 9:00 am on May 31. He informed me that he had become aware of my disability status. He said, “I don’t see you ever getting a security clearance” with a diagnosis of panic disorder. (More on that, below.) Moreover, since I did not disclose my diagnosis–– I was never legally required to do so–– he rescinded the offer.
I will not argue against the federal government itself having the right to apply increased scrutiny, on the matter of security clearances, to people with psychiatric diagnoses. When lives are possibly at risk, the rules are different.
MITRE is not the federal government. Not all the work it does requires a security clearance. It is legal for a government contractor who terminate someone who applies for a security clearance and fails to get one. It is legal for a contractor to make an offer contingent on a clearance (a conditional job offer, or CJO). It is not legal for a hiring manager to discriminate against people with disabilities on the suspicion that they might take longer to clear.
I don’t know Mr. W’s politics. Is he a far-right operative? A Nazi? That’s between him and God. As I said, I’m sticking to the facts. Some time between May 14 and May 30, he spoke to a Nazi and made a decision based on information furnished by said Nazi. Whether he is guilty of mere irresponsibility, or bears blame for something deeper and more shameful, I do not intend to say. Here, it is essential that I stick to the facts.
During the conversation of May 31, Mr. W mentioned that he could only get away with rescinding the offer because of “our current political time.” Trump.
As it were, I had a full SF-86 looked over by one of the nation’s top security clearance attorney. I have no recreational drug use (including alcohol) since March 2008. I have no criminal record, no financial mishaps. Foreign contacts, the attorney said, might be an issue. My health problems, he told me, would be “absolutely no issue” for the level of clearance in discussion, and “would not significantly delay” the process.
It’s possible that the illegal rescission of the offer was not motivated by the stated reason, but the result of a far-right infiltration of one of the nation’s most important government contractors.
Either way, it was insanely fucking illegal.
I would, of course, put the probability of Donald J. Trump’s personal involvement at zero. I don’t think he makes time on his calendar to call up MITRE and screw over leftists with mild disabilities. I doubt he even knows, or cares, that MITRE exists. But he normalized the might-makes-right moral filth of corporate America, and brought it into the public sector, and by doing so, created a problem for me.
In May 2019, a literal outed fascist emerged from the woodwork to attack my career by sending true (I do suffer from panic disorder) but irrelevant information to Mr. W. This led to MITRE allowing the illegal rescission of a job offer made to a non-radical, non-violent leftist with a job-irrelevant disability.
The Nazis won.
Government, until 2016, was supposed to be immune to the bush-league chicanery we encounter in the startup industry. Illegal terminations and illegal rescissions of offers made are not supposed to happen there. Today, all bets are off. Be afraid.
I’ve studied fascism. I know what it means when a government tells people of a certain kind they now live under a five o’clock curfew. I know what it means when people like me experience rescinded job offers. Civilization’s enemy, fascism, starts with minor stuff–– boycotts, unionbusting, blacklisting–– before it builds up a seven- or eight-figure body count.
It’s difficult to predict which ethnicities and minorities will be targeted, in what order. We know that fascism takes the accessible first. It hits unionists and leftists and feminists–– people who speak out. It attacks people with disabilities–– whom it perceives as weak.
It’s tempting for people in that non-aligned majority to take comfort in the notion that they need not outrun the bear–– they only need outrun the other guy. For me, the fight’s not optional. I am that other guy.
The metaphor of a bear is not adequate, however. A bear, once sated, will cease to feed. Rather, what advances is a rising tide of ethical failure–– a saturated, soaking mud of moral filth that, if not opposed, will drag civilization to oblivion.
I have about an hour of video, audio, and picture media pertaining to the matters discussed in Chapters 27–31. There’s plenty of detail that, for the sake of brevity, I haven’t shared, but that makes my case even stronger.
MITRE’s illegal rescission of my job offer is exactly the sort of thing that happens before a far-right flashover. In the battle against the far right–– against fascists and Nazis, against infiltrators of trusted institutions–– we are at eleven fifty-nine and a sweeping second hand.
It wasn’t easy to tell that story. Thank you for taking the time to hear it.
The word count nears novella territory. Unfortunately, I could not have told that story in two thousand words. I doubt I could have told it in six thousand words. At brevity, it would have read as a paranoid rant. Extreme claims require justification and analysis. Consider post-2016 politics, from a pre-2015 vantage point. Some things are hard to believe unless every detail is backed up.
It is not with pleasure that I write on an existential threat to this great nation, and to civilization and its future. It is not with pleasure that I write on the probable infiltration by far-right militants of an organization that relies on the trust of the federal government.
We have a world to win; we also have one to lose. We do not have to live in a world where experiences like mine, relayed above in twenty thousand words of horror, are the norm.
For the love of God, fight.
(For Part 2, go here.)
Nazis are bad. This is going to be a plot point, much later in this essay, so if you weren’t aware of the fact, write it down: Nazis are bad.
Chapter 1: A Kind of Reckoning
Some stories start with mistakes. This one does. In the summer of 2008, I left a lucrative career in finance to join a technology startup.
At the time I did this, I believed strongly in technological capitalism. I figured we were 20–40 years away from a post-scarcity society in which to be “poor” meant sitting on a two-week waiting list to go to the Moon. We, the programmers who implement human progress, were the good guys.
Our record shows that we’re not. We created fake news. The companies we create–– and, because our purpose is to unemploy people, those are often profitable and draw attention–– have juvenile, toxic cultures. We’ve normalized witch hunts over trivialities, and people lose jobs over jokes about devices called dongles. We’ve built this so-called “new economy” in which recessions destroy workers’ finances and careers, but recoveries are jobless.
Our major contribution to the world, as private-sector programmers, is to push the balance of power between takers (capital) and makers (labor) in the wrong direction.
We have built an empire of garbage. It has not been pleasant for me, in my 30s, to come to the realization that I have unwittingly chosen a career path in opposition to the welfare of society.
What I plan to do with my life, that’s for another day. I’d like to have Farisa’s Crossing ready for publication in early 2021. The project’s been a lot of fun, a lot of work, and I can’t wait to have a finished product. I should be honest about its prospects, though. It’s a very high-potential book, but some of the best writers I know (people who will be remembered, I am sure of it, in 100 years) are still unable to subsist on book sales. So, I have kept my mathematical and computational skills sharp. I have no intention to abandon those. I enjoy programming quite a lot, and I’m still good at it, so long as I’m working on a real project rather than Jira tickets.
The software industry itself? I’ll be honest. I’d rather starve than work in another company where “Agile” is taken seriously. It’s not that I imagine COVID-19 to be a lot of fun; but at least I’d only have to do it once, not every two weeks.
I have written about 250,000 lines of code in my career in at least 20 different programming languages, and in spite all this, the sum contribution of my work to society comes out in the red. It doesn’t matter what technology can do. It matters what it does. We need to stop fantasizing about our 200-line open-source monad tutorials somehow advancing the state of human knowledge enough to cancel out the harm done by the WMU’s (weapons of mass unemployment) we build at our day jobs.
Over the past 30 years, the balance of power in our society has shifted toward capital and away from labor, toward employers and away from workers. We can’t blame all of this on politics; someone taught the machines how to run the dystopia. This means: we’re the bad guys.
Chapter 2: Understanding Automation
We have been here before. Ill-managed prosperity caused the Great Depression, and it caused the rise of fascism.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, we became far better than we’d ever been at making food (nitrogen fixation). A boon, right? What could go wrong? Capitalism does not handle boons well. In 1920s North America, the pattern unfolded like this: prices for agricultural commodities declined, bankrupting farmers and communities that served them, leading to cascading rural poverty, which eventually reduced demand for the products of industry, and finally this became known as “the Great Depression” when it tanked the stock market (October 1929) and thereby hit rich people in the cities.
What happened to farming, to agricultural goods, in the 1920s… is happening again to all human labor.
The global rich prosper. Everyone else suffers under malevolent mismanagement and a concentration of power that would not be possible without the tools that we, as programmers, have built.
Not all markets have legible, objective moral states. I do not think it is of great ethical importance whether a tube of toothpaste costs $3.49 or $3.59–– it seems that supply and demand can be trusted to figure that out. If God exists, she likely has no opinion on what should be the price of palladium or platinum. We are not entitled by divide fiat to a $47 price on a barrel of combustible hydrocarbons that, in any case, we ought to be using less of. Markets determine exchange rates of various assets–– how much of one thing is worth how much of another–– and most of these exchange rates do not carry primary moral weight. But one does.
The exchange rate between capital and labor–– between property and talent, between past and future, between the whims of the dead and the needs of the living–– has a clear, objective, morally favored direction. That’s the one, if God exists and has a will aligned with the health of human culture, that matters.
As I’ve said, quite a number of new technologies push the balance of power to favor employers, not workers. This is objectively evil work.
When I look at how life has changed in the past 20 years, I don’t think the smartphone is more than in incremental improvement, and I’m not impressed by the eggplant emoji or the $1,500 embarrassment that was Google Glass. What most people have experienced is an increase in their feeling squeezed, and it’s not just a feeling. The major contribution of private-sector technology to daily life has been a slew of surveillance tools sold to health insurers, authoritarian governments, and employers.
There is an open hypocrisy at play in the workplace. A worker in constant search for better options will be disliked–– he’s “not a team player”. That seems fair. No one likes someone who’s only out for himself. Yet, companies expend a considerable share of resources to figure out which workers can be replaced and how quickly. There are people in our society who collect a salary by finding ways to take salaries from others in the companies where they work. Doubly weird is the expectation, within the so-called corporate “family”, to treat these people as teammates rather than adversaries.
A worker who changes jobs as soon as a better offer comes along is a “job hopper”. He’ll get bad references and rumors will spread that he failed up or was fired. Yet, our employers spend a significant fraction of their funds (wealth we generated) looking at us from every angle to see whether we can be replaced.
Social media has played a central role in this dystopia. We now live in a world where one needs a public reputation–– an asset that 99.9 percent of people should not want, because reputation is an asset easily destroyed by some of the world’s worst people–– to get a job. Gone are the days when anyone able to speak in complete sentences could call up a CEO and talk his way into a high-paying position. In today’s world, it’s impossible for workers to reinvent themselves–– every detail can be checked, and people who opt out (who don’t have “a Facebook” or “a LinkedIn”) are assumed to have something to hide.
Social media promises a path to influence, but for employers its purpose is to ratify the lack of influence that most people have. In the old world, a terminated employee got three months of severance and glowing references, because a boss never knew if he was letting go someone who had powerful friends and could bring the pain back. In the new world, an employer can look up a target’s Twitter feed, see a lack of blue-check followers, and confidently presume that person to be in the 99 percent of people who can safely be treated like garbage.
Chapter 3: Tech–– Not Even Once
I mentioned before that I left a lucrative career in finance, in 2008, to join “the tech industry”. This was, financially, a seven-figure mistake. Possibly eight. It was the stupidest decision I ever made, and I assure you there’s a lot of competition for that distinction.
Private sector technology (“tech”) is not a career. There is no stability in it. You are only as good as your last job; your job is only as good as your last “sprint”. Unless you become a successful founder, you will not be respected. You’re a thousand times more likely to end up like me–– 36 years old with no clear path to where I want to be–– than even to become a modest millionaire.
You might think, like I did, that you’re going to beat the odds because you’re smarter than the average hoser. Not so. Compared to the people in charge of this industry, I’m a black swan seven-wingèd eidolon of merit. It does not fucking matter, how smart you are.
Your IQ doesn’t matter because you’re not going to be using machine learning to cure cancer. You’re going to be working on Jira tickets to build a product that corporate executives will use to unemploy fellow proletarians. Any idiot can do that kind of work. Furthermore, at a salary higher than idiots can get elsewhere, many idiots will try. Unless you are 21 and have no obligations, quite a few of those idiots will be able to work longer hours than you.
Private-sector technology is not “meritocracy”. It’s a fart in a cave that has not ceased to echo.
I’ve had the whole spectrum of tech-industry experiences. I’ve worked at companies that have failed. I’ve also worked at companies that succeeded, whose founders went on to fail those who got ’em there. At a “Big 4”, I worked for a manager with an 8-year track record of using phony performance issues to tease out people’s personal health issues, which he would blab about to colleagues. (I was told that he was fired for this, but after a five-year absence, he returned to that company.) As a middle manager, I sat and listened as two executives threatened physical violence on someone who reported to me (someone who was, in truth, quite good at his job) because of unavoidable delays on a project. One of my favorite people (of note, a black female) was harassed out of a company–– her manager, a personal friend of the CEO, was not fired, and went on to be a VP in his next job. I’ve seen tech companies offer the same leadership role–– title and responsibilities the same–– two multiple new hires with the intention of their fighting for the job they were promised. In March 2012, I was fired for refusing to commit a felony that would have cost its victims hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the mid- and late 2010s, I got death threats related to this blog–– and (as a public leftist) my name became known to some scary far-right fuckers–– a topic I’ll cover at length in Part 2.
All of this, and for what? Nothing.
Yes, I know how to program. I have taste and I have the (rare, apparently) skill of knowing how to do it right. I can talk a great game about functional programming, artificial intelligence, and programming language design. I have a solid understanding of what the various abstraction layers (e.g., operating system) are doing. Here’s the problem. My peers, in the middling years of legitimate careers, are able to buy houses and start families. They’re in the position to move about the economy at least the upper-middle. Me? I’m stuck in a trade where even people with “senior” and “principal” in their title have to interview daily for their own jobs. What a fucking joke.
I left Wall Street, and joined this career, because I bought into the Paul Graham Lie: that if you join a startup and it fails, it won’t hurt you, because you’ll be respected for being “entrepreneurial”. You won’t get your IPO today, and you’ll “have to settle” for a $500,000-per-year VP position at a FaceGoog, or an EIR role at a venture fund, but you can use your time out to recover your finances and energies until you’re ready to play again.
There is no truth in the Paul Graham Lie. There are too many failing startups and most of them do not become VPs at FaceGoogs. They get regular crappy jobs.
I found no meritocracy in the technology industry. I had a slew of intensely negative experiences. I must be honest on this, though: I got exactly what I deserved.
Whether I’m a good man, that’s not for me to say; it is true (and perhaps a weakness) that I lack the stomach for evil. Yes, I am a person of merit. Compared to the people running the tech industry, I am seven-S-Tier merit. However, I entered a line of work that, in the final analysis, has dedicated itself to the advancement of the power held by employers over my fellow human beings. Failure is what I deserved. Misery is what I deserved.
My youthful self-deception about the true nature of corporate capitalism is no excuse. When one who desires to be a good man, nonetheless, works for the baddies… what else can be expected?
Chapter 4: Artificial Stupidity
The last thing I intend here is to tell a pity-me story. Until 2018, none of my experiences with injustice stepped outside the range that is typical. I’ve seen people smarter and better than I am get screwed far worse than I ever have.
Do not pity me, because I don’t pity myself. Learn from my experiences and make better choices than I did. The takeaway from all this should be that, if a person of eminent merit can have a terrible time in the tech industry, it can happen to anyone. Most people get screwed; few have the private privileges I have that enable them to talk about it.
There cannot be “meritocracy” in private-sector technology, because we serve a purpose without merit. We can opt for self-deception and tell ourselves that our work is advancing the state of knowledge about database indexing, but if our work’s real purpose is to allow the rich to “disrupt” the poor out of their incomes, then a negative multiplier applies to our efforts, and diligence only means we drive fast in the wrong direction.
John Steinbeck made a brilliant comment on American false consciousness–– that socialism never took hold here because of self-deceptive workers who see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Having worked in technology, I understand the private-sector software programmer’s mind pretty well. We see ourselves as temporarily embarrassed research scientists, philanthropists, public intellectuals, and scholars. We assume there is an exponential growth curve to our production and therefore it is immaterial what we’re doing now, because in 20 years, when we’re calling the shots, we’ll make moral choices.
Employers indulge our wounded egos with the promise that, if we programmers put their heads down and plow through some ugly work–– just up to this next “milestone”, guys!–– we’ll eventually be restored to glory. That’s the promise used to pull some of the best minds of my generation (and, to be honest, quite a few not-best minds) into socially detrimental work–– performance surveillance employers use to squeeze workers, propaganda machines for capitalists and authoritarians, and weapons of mass unemployment.
I’d like to talk about artificial intelligence. I’ve been studying it since the early 2000s, when the field was considered a land of misfit toys, a bucket of ideas that didn’t work–– when neural networks were considered a bad joke ill-told. I don’t consider myself an actual expert in this very deep field, but I’ll note that quite a number of the “data science” consultants earning $350 per hour come to me for advice. (I left a doctoral program at one year, so I don’t have the paperwork to get such jobs.) There has been, in the 2010s, a plethora of startups raising venture capital on the claim that they do “artificial intelligence research”. In the vast majority of cases, they’re not.
I’ve been in more than one of these fake-news AI startups. Usually, the AI approach doesn’t work–– at least, it doesn’t scale up to real-world problems on a timeframe investors or clients will accept. The founder starts with an idea that’s usually an expansion of ideas from a college thesis (sometimes his own) and pulls a family connection to get seed funding, then hires a few rent-a-nerds to implement his “brilliant” idea. When the AI approach fails–– genuine AI research is demanding, expensive, and intermittent–– the company “pivots” away from the original project and moves into business process automation. The startup becomes a portable back office–– it failed to automate an ugly task, but by squeezing extra hours out of H1-Bs, it manages to make the work cheaper.
This switcheroo isn’t a surprise to investors. In fact, they’re usually the first ones to step in and tell the spring chicken founders that it’s time to put away childish things. Once founders realize their job is to delegate, rather than do, the work, they don’t really object to the notion of pivoting to something more mundane.
It is not immoral, of course, for a business to change its strategy. The issue here is in the continuing deception. These companies claim to be doing “next-generation machine learning” when they’re actually running on cheap manual labor. Clients buy into something that appears to have more long-term upside than it actually does–– they take the early adoption risk of something that’s unlikely to merit it.
The biggest losers in the fake-news AI con, though, are employees. It’s hard to get smart people to work at no-name companies for below-market salaries on the low-status, boring line-of-business problems encountered by a startup serving as a portable back office. The trick is to tell these programmers that if they bear down and endure 6–12 months of drudgery, they’ll graduate into the research positions they were originally promised. In reality, what lives at the end of that 6–12 months of drudgery is a middle manager saying “we just need” 6–12 months more.
I’ve worked on Wall Street. I’ve worked for venture-funded companies. I’ll say without reservation that the ethics on Wall Street are far better. Often, VC-funded founders are people with MBAs who failed out of Wall Street (if you can believe this) for being too toxic and unethical.
Say what you will about finance. There are plenty of things to dislike about its culture. I’m no fan of the noisy environments, or of the constant wagering on everything, or of the occasional encounter with openly-asshole politics of someone who read Ayn Rand at too young an age to get the joke, or of the sense–– though, I assure you, financial workers are treated better than tech workers–– that the job is still paperwork for rich people. To suggest that Wall Street is some workplace utopia would murder my credibility. It isn’t. I only mean to say that the ethical and intellectual qualify of people in finance is higher, on average, than in the private-sector technology world.
Why does Wall Street, then, have a worse reputation than Silicon Valley? Finance, unlike Jira tickets, is for adults. Ethical failures on Wall Street make news. When a bank collapse or a market fails, people learn about it. In my experience, traders are no more or less honest than the general population. The major difference is that traders are smart enough, at least when it comes to careers, to play the long game. The narrow-minded taskmasters who run daily operations in technology, for a contrast, think in terms of two-week “sprints”.
The person who promises you the moon but, three weeks after you’ve moved across the country to join his operation, changes your job description and puts you on sprint work, that guy’s going to be a techie.
Chapter 5: Teabagged by an Agile Scrotum–– Or, Why Programming Is a Dead Career
The non-career of private-sector programming calls itself “software engineering” to give itself the aura of being a profession. It isn’t one.
A profession is a set of traditions and institutions setting forth (that is, professing) ethical obligations that supersede managerial authority and the short-term expediency. That is only possible–– because professionals aren’t any better or worse than anyone else, and the need to survive will push anyone to extremes–– if those who work in the profession are protected from compromising positions.
For example, a doctor must obey the Hippocratic Oath, even if it requires him to defy superior orders. This is only tenable if the medical profession makes it so a doctor can survive losing his job–– he can get another one; he is still a doctor–– and that will only be the case if entry is limited, lifting all professionals above the daily (and ethically compromising) need to survive. The profession puts a floor on wages by limiting entry to the qualified, and it puts a floor on credibility by giving its workers institutional support.
If a profession collapses and any hungry loser can get in, the cheapest people drive out the skilled. Workers lose, clients lose, and society as a whole loses. The only winners are employers. They benefit from de-professionalization because a professional executive’s real trade is the buying and selling of others’ work, and a debased talent pool enables higher trading volume.
Software engineering has been thoroughly de-professionalized. Highly-compensated specialists have been driven out in favor of rent-a-coders who don’t understand computing or mathematics, but will accept two-week sprints and tolerate the daily “interview for your own job” meetings. I’ve referred to Agile as Beer Goggles Software Management–– the unemployable 2’s become marginally productive 4’s, but the 6+ see a drunken loser and want nothing to do with it–– but I’ve realized, over time, that the Agile Beer Goggles are here to stay. The software business has successfully refit itself to run on low-grade talent; this will not be reversed.
A boss’s incentive isn’t to hire the best people; it’s to stay in charge. Daily status meetings remind the plebeians that they’re not trusted professionals, and that they can’t invest in their own development “on the clock” but should think of themselves as day laborers who will be replaced–– there’s an army of hungry losers lined up outside the door–– as soon as their “story points” per week (or per “sprint”) drop below a certain threshold.
I tried to save this industry from this Agile madness, but I failed.
Chapter 6: This Story Peaks Early, Guys
I wrote a few posts in 2012–13 about the startup economy, although I was still figuring it out myself at the time. One concept in which I invested a lot of hope is open allocation–– the notion that workers are better at judging the relative merits of projects that they’ll let on in an authoritarian, command-driven company; that, therefore, trusting them to vote with their feet makes excellence more likely. I didn’t invent the concept, but I named and evangelized it. I still believe that open allocation fundamentally works, but I have no hope in its eventual adoption. The genuine malevolence that exists in global corporate capitalism, since 2015, has been so evident in such force lately that issues greater than inefficient allocation of talent dominate my concern.
Still, I was thrilled to see my theories on open allocation get traction. Tom Preston-Werner quoted me at Oscon 2013 (go to 13:37). This blog, in 2013–15, began to get hundreds, then thousands, of unique views per day. On my best days, I broke 100,000; my Alexa ranking in the San Francisco metropolitan area was, for a long time, in the four digits.
There were stressful moments during this time. A mistake I made in 2011 got more publicity than it deserved, for reasons largely my fault. My left-leaning (and, increasingly, fully leftist) politics attracted death threats from various far-right elements–– a topic we’ll return to in Part 2. I’ve been doxxed so many times and in so many different ways, I assume I have no secrets–– but, then again, I have nothing to hide. Still, on the whole, the good outweighed bad.
One place where I achieved prominence was Quora. Today, we know Quora as a buggy, name-walled Yahoo! Answer clone that generates privacy violations as reliably as summer humidity generates swamp ass. In 2015, however, Quora had (in spite of itself) an excellent community. It showed flashes of potential that, in the end, it would never really meet–– but, from 2013–15, there was a high quality of questions posted, and a high quality of people answering them.
I achieved the “Top Writer” distinction in 2013, 2014, and 2015. I was frequently consulted by the site’s moderators on policy and community management. I had about 8,500 followers. I don’t know what that number means now, but at the time it ranked me third or fourth among non-celebrities (depending on what we call a “celebrity”–– I should be forgiven for having fewer followers than Barack Obama) and first (breaking seven figures, some weeks) for answer views. A number of my responses, mini-essays in which I’d sometimes invest several hours, were published by partner sites such as Forbes, Time magazine, and the BBC’s online edition.
On June 15, 2015, I was an “It Programmer”, as much as one can exist. (There turns out to be a low ceiling on a non-founder’s status; by stepping above it, I got myself in trouble.) People all over the world reached out, sight unseen, and offered to fly me out to discuss positions at their companies. Often, I was called “the conscience of Silicon Valley,” even though I never lived there.
The next day (June 16) an event occurred that has nothing directly to do with me, and involves a man who probably does not know that I exist.
I lived in Chicago. Seven hundred and fifteen miles east-and-slightly-south, on a cloudy Manhattan morning, a deranged real estate baron descended an escalator, like Kefka in the last battle of Final Fantasy VI, and gave a circuitous, self-promoting, and racist speech in which he announced a presidential campaign that would ultimately be successful.
I’ll talk later on–– this story gets dark, my friends–– about fascism and whether I think Donald Trump constitutes or fits into a credible fascist threat to this country. Some people consider Trump a fascist; others view him as a mere opportunist. For now, observe that there were, at the least, coincidences in timing. Trump’s rise to power occurred as the far right, or “alt-right”–– a morass of tribalism, pseudo-academic racism, and might-makes-right attitudes toward topics ranging from international relations to corporate conduct–– evolved from an incel affectation into a full-fledged, mainstream political movement. The private attitudes of venture-funded tech founders were now finding public voice in a presidential candidate.
I did not expect Trump to become president. I remember a conversation well with some friends about him, in late 2015. Most people said he had no chance of becoming president. I gave him a 1-in-250 shot, but I would have given him a 4-in-5 shot, even then, of performing well enough at the primary to speak at the convention in Cleveland.
It wasn’t hard to see what Trump was doing. His schlock about Mexican “rapists” was old-school miscegenation panic. The left blames societal failures caused by corporate capitalism on corporate capitalism; the right blames societal failures caused by corporate capitalism on women, minorities, and immigrants. Trump played the demagogue game disgustingly well. His victory, I did not expect, but I knew that Trumpism was going to be with us for a long time, even if he lost in November 2016. Having worked in the tech industry, I saw it coming.
Chapter 7: The Man Who Killed Paul Graham… Is Screwed
No, I didn’t murder Paul Graham. As far as I know, he’s very much alive. He’s only “dead” insofar as his relevancy (like, by my own choice, mine) has taken a precipitous dive.
I take credit in jest. Substantial evidence exists that his decision, in February 2014, to step down as president of Y Combinator, and thereby reduce his relevance in the tech industry, was driven in part by his dislike for skepticism he faced among the public and media. Though I was a tipster and source for a Gawker story he disliked, I did not intend to “kill” Paul Graham. Most of this happened by accident. Still, I know based on private conversations with people in shared circles, that my work contributed to his decision.
One of the worst things about fame or even semi-fame is the Carly Simon Problem. “You’re so vain,” she sang, “you probably think this song about you.” In this case, there was a person intended as the target of the song, so he would be correct in believing the song to be about him. That’s not the issue here. The Carly Simon Problem exists because some people, as I’ve observed, think all songs are about them. People see themselves where they aren’t, they get butthurt, and then they fuck up your life.
When I publish Farisa’s Crossing, I am terrified about ex-girlfriends from the Bush Era coming out to say Farisa is based on them. Let me address that now: she isn’t. What Farisa represents, that’s a secret I’ll take to my grave.
I’ve been burned by the Carly Simon Problem more than once. I’ll give two examples here.
Number one: an ex-colleague managed a successful return to finance–– he got a job as the head quant at a hedge fund. I considered this guy a friend; we played board games together on multiple occasions, and I’ve been over to his house to have dinner with his wife and kids. For a position at a Chicago hedge fund, I used him as a reference.
Little did I know that he had read one of my blog posts and believed it to be about a place where we had worked. He found it to be “bad form” to write about our shared prior employer–– to be clear, I wasn’t. The post in question was about a 1990s corporate meltdown I studied in my research on open allocation.
I got shanked. He gave me a bad reference and I didn’t get a job.
I grew up in central Pennsylvania. Unlike these soft-faced preppies who dominate the upper echelons of the corporate world, I grew up understanding the notion of respect. You fight; or, you shut up and walk away. There is absolutely no shame in walking away from a fight. Almost always, walking away is what you want to do, because most serious fights don’t have any winners. One should, for similar reasons, avoid the conduct (such as throwing around bad references) that necessitates a physical fight. This being the case, I have zero patience for white-collar, lily-livered, passive-aggressive failmen who pretend to be a friend, but throw around bad references and sink people’s job prospects. Don’t like what I have to say? Confront me. I’ll stick to words as long as you do–– no one needs to know, either, what we argued about, or that we ever argued.
I can respect a wide variety of people, but I cannot respect a craven crud-ball who thinks that an acceptable response to an anodyne blog post is give bad job references like a fucking dirtbag. If I ever get cancer, I will name it after this guy.
The Carly Simon Problem is one of the main reason I nearly quit writing in 2016. I’m more than willing to go the distance in a fair fight, if that’s where we are. I cannot tolerate being stabbed in the back by cowards–– especially cowards who weren’t even in a conversation, but who took offense to it on the incorrect assumption of a song being about them. Sometimes, the song is about someone else. Sometimes, the song is about no one. Sometimes, the song is just a damn song.
The second major encounter I had with the Carly Simon Problem involves Paul Graham.
I know, I know: I promised Nazis, and here I am talking about Paul Graham. (I don’t think Paul Graham is a Nazi.) There’s some back story, some buildup. Unfortunately, this means I have to get into events that sound like petty drama, but that will in fact lead into something major and criminal.
Even now, I don’t harbor strong opinions about Paul Graham. I would be happy to mend fences with him, if he apologized for the conduct described below, almost all of which was committed not by him but by his subordinates at Y Combinator.
There is a lot to like and respect about the man. For a start, in his prime he wrote some excellent books on the programming language, Lisp. He got more right than he got wrong. Unlike me, he won the birth-year lottery and walked away from Viaweb (Yahoo! Store) with a boatload of Boomer Bucks. He’s an above-average writer and, although I haven’t always agreed with what he’s had to say, his contributions to technology discussions have, at times, been insightful.
A business model that thrived in the 1990s technology boom was the so-called “startup incubator”, which made small investments in tiny companies and thereby made a diversified wager on the startup economy as a whole. Incubators always had a seedy reputation–– they promised mentorship and introduction to venture capitalists, while rarely providing more than office space and coffee–– but the business model isn’t prima facie evil.
After the 2001 tech crash, internet startups developed the reputation of being a goofy 1990s fad that would never return–– the “new economy”, conventional wisdom said, was a short con that had failed. Incubators, as well, went out of fashion and became a symbol of 1990s clownery.
Paul Graham, having become rich enough to retire in the 1990s, continued to evangelize the startup economy while the rest of the world’s faith in it sat at a nadir. He cheer-led the notion of a small technology company when no one else would. In 2005, he opened up an incubator called Y Combinator–– named after a computer science construct discovered by a distant relative of mine–– or “YC”.
I dislike Y Combinator. I think it has done more harm than good to the world, because it has exacerbated the ageism and clubby classism of the technology industry, and because it has inadvertently given credence to “new economy” ideas that actually haven’t worked very well. This being said, I don’t think Y Combinator is the typical, seedy incubator. I’ve researched Paul Graham and his operation, and everything convinces me that he makes good-faith efforts to truly back the companies he picks–– and quite a number have gone on to be successful. We can debate another time whether Y Combinator’s strong track record proves its merit or its founders’ social connections, but his incubator became unique among the pack in developing a prestige that no other one has.
I met Mr. Graham in person once (March 2007). No one had any reason then to know who I was, so I doubt he remembers me. He seemed like a nice guy, I liked him and, until 2015, I still liked him, even though we disagreed on many things.
So why, in late 2013, did he suddenly dislike me? Again, it’s the Carly Simon Problem, because of course it is.
Chapter 8: There Are Chickenhawks Among Us
A logic puzzle goes like so. One hundred people live on an island; ninety have brown eyes and ten have blue eyes. No mirrors exist and no one talks about eye color, because there’s a rule that, while it is not illegal to have blue eyes, anyone who knows he has blue eyes must, at dawn the next day, leave the island forever.
They live in peace, until one day, an outsider (“oracle”) known never to lie comes to the island, calls an assembly of all hundred inhabitants, and says, “At least one of you has blue eyes.”
What happens? You would think: Nothing. No new information is introduced, so you would imagine that the oracle has no effect.
The answer is: 10 days later, all 10 blue-eyed people leave the island. The oracle introduces something they know (since everyone sees either 9 or 10 blue-eyed people) into common knowledge and that changes everything. For a full explanation, click the link above.
In this way, saying something that everyone knows (introducing no new knowledge) can have a social effect.
In December 2013, I wrote a blog post about chickenhawking. A chickenhawk is a business executive who expresses his midlife crisis not by purchasing a sports car or having an affair, but by investing in the career of a younger man–– usually, for reasons that will be discussed, a certain type of younger man–– and living vicariously through him.
A chickenhawk gives his young protege (or “chicken”) rapid career advancement and a high income, in exchange for exciting stories. There is a revenge drive in play; the “hawk” punishes women who rejected him 20 years ago by inflating the economic virility of a sociopath who will–– as I then put it, capable even in barely-trigenarian literary infancy of the occasional limit break–– “tear through party girls like a late-April tornado”.
A fictional example occurs in The Office. The show has to stay PG-rated and humorous, so there’s a lot left unsaid, but Michael Scott harbors a vaguely homoerotic (and non-reciprocated) obsession with subordinate Ryan Howard, one that leads him to assist the latter’s career (and eventually be surpassed). He takes an interest in his protege’s personal life; he lives out his midlife crisis through a younger man with the social skills, courage, and resources (due to the hawk’s support of the chicken’s career) to things that, in the hawk’s twenties, he couldn’t pull off.
Silicon Valley is ageist and sexist. VCs “pattern match” to a certain type of person–– a young, unattached, usually heterosexual, male sociopath–– and one cannot understand the venture-funded software industry without an understanding of why. Sand Hill Road ought to be renamed Chickenhawk Alley.
Of course, this isn’t unique to technology. The corporate system’s raison d’être is to funnel sexual access to unattractive, rapacious men who have nothing to offer women outside of the social status induced by their control of resources. Without this motivation in play, the corporate system would have likely collapsed, leading to socialism, several decades ago. The rich do not hold on to the corporate system because they enjoy TPS reports; they do it because it gives them an advantage over other men (especially younger men) and thins out the competition. Chickenhawks tend to be too timid to abuse their control of resources in the way a more typical corporate executive would; they do it vicariously through someone else.
Paul Graham took offense to my December 2013 about chickenhawking–– but what does chickenhawking have to do with Paul Graham? I don’t know. I still don’t know. I don’t think he is a chickenhawk. I do not accuse him of being one. I never have. That song was never, ever about him.
No evidence exists of Paul Graham being a chickenhawk. Nor is there evidence of him being pro-chickenhawk.
Except what follows.
Chapter 9: The
Vultures Chickenhawks Attack!
I make this analysis in good faith. In discussing Paul Graham’s personality, I find common ground. What could be called faults are traits I share.
I’ve been told on good authority that, at least at one time, he spent 6 hours per day on Hacker News, a news aggregator and community created around Y Combinator. Obsessive? I am not one to talk here–– I have also suffered unhealthy addictions to internet communities that consumed similar quantities of my free time. It takes a sort of obsessive mind to excel at detail-oriented crafts like programming and writing.
Creative people have another flaw: we tend to take criticism and skepticism around our ideas personally. It would not surprise me to learn that others’ skepticism of him was a primary reason for (a) his actions in 2013–15, to be discussed, and (b) his decision to step down as president of Y Combinator in early 2014.
My writing got to him. As I said before, Paul Graham is an above-average writer who won the birth-year lottery and whose optimism about the startup economy played a major role in restoring public faith in it. Some time later, I showed up on the scene. I’m also an above-average writer, but I did not win the birth-year lottery and I did not make millions for showing up at a place. My experiences in 2008–15 (detailed above) led me to conclude that the “new economy” was an ersatz replica of the old one. As my skepticism grew, I did not hesitate to express it.
My comments frequently rose to the top on Hacker News. Whether this means I was right, or merely wrote well, I shan’t say. I’ll only observe that often I achieved top comment.
And then, because I had the nerve to say something everyone already knew–– that there are chickenhawks in Silicon Valley–– I suffered the dreaded Hacker News “rankban”.
What the fuck’s a
Lommy rankban? In a less stupid world, you wouldn’t have to care about this sort of thing. In today’s world, though, where opaque algorithms determine the placement and implied social proof of user-created content, and in which these reputation measurements make the difference between “influence” and unemployable obscurity, this kind of thing matters.
As I said, Hacker News (or “HN”) is a news aggregator and discussion hub for private-sector programmers. Even to be in the running for serious programming jobs–– not low-end rent-a-coder sprint work where you’re competing with sweatshop workers–– you need a pre-existing reputation. Hacker News is where a lot of people go to build one.
Y Combinator, a startup incubator, owns it. The conflict of interest should be obvious. It is a news aggregator owned by a baby-league venture capitalist. It is a PR organ that papers the reputations of YC-backed companies. It punishes those who express skepticism of these startups, or of the (defective) ecosystem in which they exist.
Someone banned from Hacker News is not notified of his offense (and there is no appeal). He does not even know he is banned, in most cases. He’s “hellbanned”, which means that his comments and posts are visible to him but no one else. This is contraindicated by the psychiatric community–– it’s a form of gaslighting. Less drastic is the “slowban”, by which a site performs poorly. You see this a lot in the venture-funded world–– in real estate and personal finance, there are a number of venture-funded companies using slowbanning to redline. Rankban, most insidious, exists when a site’s opaque content ranking algorithms systematically degrade one’s posts and comments–– if the content is successful, it is still represented as unsuccessful, and suffers reduced readership.
An anonymous tipster, in January 2014, informed me that I had been put on slowban and rankban by Paul Graham. I did not believe it at first–– I thought better of the man, and failed to see why he would have a strong opinion of me–– but these were relatively easy to test. Slowban, I verified by comparing response times on HTTP requests when logged in versus logged out. Rankban was harder to prove–– this I tested by digging up old high-performing posts and verifying that (years later) they had fallen to the bottom, where they would go unread.
I’ll confess that this is minor shit–– I only bring it up to prove that Paul Graham held an animus toward me as early as 2013 because of my anti-chickenhawk stance.
Rather than bog you down, dear reader, in more petty drama, let’s catch up to 2015 and the rise of Trump–– of note is that his increasing success (long before he won the presidency) validated a certain might-makes-right attitude toward publicity and business; long before November 2016, corporate executives were taking note.
In August 2015, I suggested, based on things Travis Kalanick said about his own motivations for starting Uber, that the company likely had a toxic culture. (Two years later….) This got me banned–– actually banned–– from Hacker News.
Banned from Hacker News! By this, I was truly, deeply… sorry, it is still too much….
Nah. It didn’t bother me. I was 32 at the time; I had outgrown the Hacker News community and the mentality it serves. Being banned from that place was no big deal–– a liberation of time, to be honest about it. The only issue was that Dan Gackle misrepresented the reason for banning me, taking an entirely different comment out of context in a way that any court in the U.S. would classify as defamatory.
Perhaps a week later, Paul Buchheit, a man who jokes about gun violence as a means of handling business negotiations, attacked me on Quora.
Worth noting is that Y Combinator bought a piece of Quora in May 2014 at a fire-sale price. It seemed an odd deal at the time, and still does, but I think both parties saw themselves as getting the better end of that one. Quora got to claim it was “YC” at the peak of the incubator’s prestige. Y Combinator, at the same time, gained the ability to “moderate” Quora’s community and content so as to favor YC-backed companies.
After this nonsense–– the “rankban”; Dan Gackle libeling me on Hacker News after banning me; the bizarre personal attacks from Paul Buchheit; and various other factors I shan’t get into–– I could tell there was a pattern. If nothing else, Paul Graham was doing a poor job of controlling his puppies.
I challenged Paul Graham to (wait for it) a rap duel. I’m not a stellar rapper; I did some freestyle in college and I’m half-decent for a white guy, nothing to write home about, but I felt confident that I could beat Paul Graham. I was, on one hand, extending an olive branch. Not having anything against Paul Graham himself–– he was negligent in failing to call off his puppies, but that could be fixed–– I felt that a public rap battle would be an opportunity to show that, despite our differences, we could respect each other well enough to put on a mutually beneficial (and entertaining) show. At the same time, I needed to make it clear that, if Paul Graham couldn’t control his puppies and the embarrassment they were causing, I would continue to demonstrate this incapacity.
On September 4, in retaliation for the rap-duel challenge, YC-backed Quora banned me–– again, in a common pattern, on false pretenses. My account, which had more than 8,500 followers, had been turned into a defamation page with a bright red text block saying, “This user has been banned.”
Mucho internet drama. I won’t blame you if your eyes glazed over. You’d think such things wouldn’t matter in the real world. You’d think. Don’t worry–– the stakes are about to go up, and the Nazis aren’t far behind.
Chapter 10: When Nonsense Decides To Matter
I interviewed for a job in January 2016 where it came up–– not as a stupid thing to laugh about, but as a serious concern–– that I’d been banned from Hacker News. A Chicago-based hedge fund decided not to hire me for a quant role because–– as I have from a headhunter who was decent enough to give me the real reason–– an MD observed that, “apparently this Paul Graham fellow doesn’t like him.”
This is an objective moral fact: internet drama like that should never affect someone’s ability to earn an income.
Unfortunately, the world has a surfeit of immature, deficient men who, on the basis of something as minuscule as a website ban, will close doors–– even, if not especially, doors that are not theirs to close.
I have seen all sides of this Black Mirror–level idiocy. I’ve been a manager. I’ve been involved in hiring decisions. I’ve made calls; I’ve defended people; I’ve also failed at defending people.
More than once, I’ve seen irrelevant internet activity–– as minor as rumors on sites like the blessedly-defunct Juicy Campus–– come up as cause to deny candidates jobs, reduce their offers on the assumption of lesser leverage, or to fire otherwise excellent employees.
Also, though I never cared about job candidate’s politics, this is not a difficult matter for employers to discern. It’s something they care about for “cultural fit” reasons, but not in the ways one might expect. I’ve never seen anyone hosed for being a Republican or Democrat, or for supporting a mainstream presidential candidate–– it’s possible that it happens; I just haven’t seen it–– but I have frequently seen people denied opportunites for “being political”, and it is almost always the left that is penalized.
Overt racism will get someone dinged, true, but if the candidate’s a white guy who retweets Breitbart articles, an executive will always step in and say, “We don’t know that he supports those views.” On the other hand, someone who’s anti-racist–– say she’s active in Black Lives Matter–– will get similarly dinged, not for her politics per se, but for the fear of hiring a “troublemaker”. Once I overheard a conversation in which an executive described a colleague as “terminal” (not promotable into management) because “you can never trust a male feminist”.
Corporates don’t show their far-right colors often, but anti-leftism is the payload of their aversion to “the political”. They’ll fire a racist because it’s good for publicity, but their real fear is of the left–– of truth and justice.
Chapter 11: Morality
Does God exist?
That’s the easiest question there is. Yes. God–– the God of the Torah, the Bible, the Quran–– exists. Zeus also exists. Osiris exists. Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello, exists. Farisa will exist, once I finish the damn story. They exist as much as the number 2 or the color “magenta”. They may exist only in our minds, but they exist as concepts.
The harder question is: are there supernatural humanoids who interfere with the observed laws of physics? On that one, I’ve seen absolutely no evidence, so I’m going to profess non-belief. More interesting is: is there an afterlife? I’m on the happier side of 50–50, on that one. My reason would require another essay, but I find accessible reasons to believe there is one–– and while I might be wrong; if I am, I won’t have to bear the disappointment, since I won’t exist.
Does absolute morality exist? I think so. Most ethical mandates are situational and relative, but their underlying reasons for existence seem less flexible. I am unable to articulate precisely the moral principles of existence, but I believe they exist.
I’m not a nihilist, and I go further. I don’t believe nihilists exist. At least, I don’t think a person can stay nihilistic for very long. Meaning vacuums get filled.
Let’s say someone who considers himself a nihilist, but who is a good person, is offered $5,000 to torture a kitten. He’ll refuse, because some actions he accepts and others he finds repulsive. Meaning is a weird term. Perhaps “purpose” or “value” is better. I would not torture the kitten, not because I expect the kitten to “mean” anything, but because I value the creature’s existence and welfare.
Nihilism is dangerous because it’s unstable. The meaning void will fill itself with something, but not always something good. Ultra-nihilistic villains like the Joker (Batman franchise) or Kefka (Final Fantasy VI) fill it with hatred and blood lust. Fascism, an outgrowth of might-makes-right nihilism, sells itself to the masses by presenting itself as aggressively anti-nihilistic–– thereby disavowing the decadence of which it is a culmination.
A person doesn’t stay nihilistic for long; but systems can be nihilistic. Corporate capitalism is a belligerent nihilism machine. It does not hate its victims; it simply does not value their subjective experience. A tree will be cut down unless it can pay not to be cut down.
Chapter 12: The Two-Stroke Nihilism Engine
Global corporate capitalism was not designed, technically speaking, but I cannot think of a better way to design an economic system to destroy things humans value–– a self-replicating monument to nihilism, a belligerent anti-meaning device.
The first thing to understand about global corporate capitalism is that it’s totalitarian. If the people in one nation are unfree, others must compete on wages and working conditions and will be unfree. It’s important to discuss economic totalitarianism, because while leftism has had a bad run for the past 35 years, almost all of the negativity directed at “communism” is more accurately blamed on left-wing economic totalitarianism (old-style tankie socialism). Right-wing economic totalitarianism is no better.
We’ve been pushed, over previous decades, to accept corporate rule on account of disingenuous claims that “communism killed 100 million people“. Did it? Not really. Mao Zedong’s incompetence killed some, Stalinist repression killed some, and anticommunist reaction (including fascism and World War II) killed a lot of people–– deaths that have been blamed on “communism”, even though none of those societies were communist.
A difference at issue is that capitalism has no memory and takes no responsibility; socialism, to the ill-health of its image, has far too much memory and responsibility. Americans who were unable to secure health insurance, and Pakistanis who were “freedomed” by drones, are not considered to be killed “by capitalism”. There’s a whole lot of dishonest accounting that goes on; the truth is that capitalism’s record is just as bad, if not worse.
In either case, the true enemy isn’t an economic system’s baseline principles, but totalitarian application. Global corporate capitalism is totalitarian because the employer is not happy to make a modest profit. It must make the highest profit, at any moral cost. It must have the worker’s indivisible loyalty. It takes everything it can get.
Global corporate capitalism wants for all things humans value to be “converted into dollars”. Who gets to live by the lake. The highest bidder. A “view” created by God or by Nature becomes just another form of money. Who gets the bulk of people’s time and attention? The people and organizations (often, authoritarian organizations) who specialized in the buying and selling of others–– employers. People’s friends and families get the leftovers.
Cultural influence, educational experiences, and personal relationships become nothing but “capital” in new forms. Everything gets converted into money, and if it resists such conversion, it’s marginalized to the point of nonexistence. Rebellions get bought. Sexual and cultural expressions of marginalized people are exoticized and appropriated by the rich. Social media, for a concrete example, has become a mechanism through which corporate marketing departments can buy the perception of grassroots authenticity.
Corporate capitalism’s first move is to convert all things humans value–– sexuality, social connectedness, leisure, culture, opportunity–– into an abstract quantity called money, measured in units called dollars or euros or yen. That’s the nihilism engine’s first stroke.
The second stroke is: to find the place of least utility for the dollars (euros, yen) and put there as many as possible. The rich get richer; the poor get poorer. The well-resourced have full-time staff to manufacture their reputations and appearances, so they present themselves as cosmopolitan ubermenschen (when they are, in fact, as provincial as the yokels they despise) while the poor become socially and culturally isolated.
If all things humans value are “converted into dollars”, all things humans value will go to those who have the dollars.
What is a dollar’s value? Of course, it’s not a constant. One dollar represents 8 minutes of a minimum wage worker’s time, but only half a second of a CEO’s time. If a dollar’s parked in the garage of someone who already has a billion, it’s being put where it isn’t needed. Its value is being minimized.
This shows that corporate capitalism seeks to turn all things humans value into a tradable form (money) and then to put every dollar of the money into the coffers of a person or corporation who does not need it. Since they have an excess of it, they use it to buy not things they need, but a future excess of money. This is a belligerent, nearly unstoppable utility minimizer–– an ever-advancing nothingness and pointlessness.
In 2011, Marc Andreessen said that “software is eating the world”. Having worked in the software industry during that time, I can refine this observation: corporate capitalism continues to be what’s eating the world. Software is merely what it shits out.
Technological growth of a kind that would benefit everyone has disappeared. We don’t have flying cars or robot maids. We have time-tracking software. We have Jira. The major innovations of our time have been surveillance technologies (weapons) for the benefit of health insurers, despotic governments, and authoritarian employers. That’s who’s buying this stuff.
Employers used to fear their workers, at least a little, but these days they share information (contrary to law) about suspected unionists. Workers in the trades–– in the “blue-collar” jobs displaced office workers are told to consider–– often suffer belligerent performance tracking enabled by devices running code written by people like me. Retail workers often have less than 24 hours notice of when they will work, because their shifts are determined algorithmically. The working world has gotten worse, has gotten more fascistic, and it’s our fault as private-sector programmers.
I mentioned the “Agile” garbage that makes a typical programmer’s life hell. It’s not only that we implement the weapon designs of psychopaths who profit by immiserating workers. We are also the first subjects of many such experiments, the first to taste the poisons (and stupid/earnest enough to refine them) before they are rolled out into the broader economy. “Scrum” is the same malevolent performance management applied to truck drivers and factory workers, but using that name when applied to low-status programmers. Nowhere is it written in the Cannibal Bible that a cannibal cannot be consumed by other cannibals.
Part 2 is here.
End of Part 1–– What’s to Come in Part 2
So far, we’ve covered the technology industry during 2008–15 and my experiences within it. We know of the emergence of might-makes-right politics (Trump) and we can see that it is a natural extension of global corporate capitalism.
In the first half of this exploration, I told a story with political, moral, and personal threads, all of which have diverged. In the second, we’ll arrive at the convergence. We’ll discuss the acceleration of capitalistic disease under Trump. We’ll cover purposes of the technology industry (and the Silicon Valley business model) of which most people are unaware. We’ll deepen our understanding of fascism–– what it is, why it emerges, and my own experiences in the fight against it. At the end, I’ll present why I believe the probability of a violent conflict, with fascist elements that exist within our society right now, is high.
There is much that has happened in the past five years that must be revealed. I will establish (with verifying details) something heinous about an organization of middling profile but high importance. In so doing, I may put my life in danger, but public service demands it. Names will be named; events will be explained.
On January 3, 2020, I’ll be opening up a round of beta reading for Farisa’s Crossing. Since I intend this to be the last round I do– I would like to begin serialization in April 2020, with the entire book published by February 2021– there’ll be more slots than in previous rounds.
What does a beta reader do? You’re not asked to copyedit the manuscript; copyeditors do a much more intensive read and that’s a paid service. As a beta reader, your job is to read the manuscript as you would any other book, and give feedback on what works for you and what doesn’t. You’re not expected to do more than that. It’s a time commitment of about an hour per week over 3–4 months.
Tentatively, I’m looking for 10–12 readers, preferably a diverse set with regard to age and gender (since there are major LGBT characters as well as characters with disability) as well as sexual orientation and disability.
More to follow. For now, if you’re interested in being a beta reader for an epic fantasy novel, my email address is michael.o.church at Google’s email service.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez held a town hall on October 3 at which an ostensibly mentally ill woman demanded, as a solution to climate change, “we got to start eating babies”. AOC, who has always handled adversity and difficulty with poise, addressed legitimate concerns around climate change and, while visibly disturbed by the spectacle, did not resort to ridicule or immediate denouncement, as lesser people would be wont to do. I think she handled the situation as well as anyone could have. Bravo, Ocasio.
I usually wake up between 3:00 and 5:00. At 3:27 this morning, I found #EatTheBabies trending on Twitter, and I had the distinct displeasure of reading right-wing tweets about how “leftist” climate change “hysteria” is triggering dangerous mental-health crises. According to the right, Ocasio-Cortez’s choice not to immediately denounce infantivory represents leftist endorsement of the notion. That is, of course, absurd.
Take note of this. The right wing, which has already labelled this woman a “climate activist” rather a person likely in need of psychiatric health, is testing out a false equivalency. Americans are fed up with the stochastic terrorism and bad-faith argumentation used by our society’s reactionary, authoritarian, and upper-class elements to stoke the nation’s right-wing, racist, paranoid counterrevolution (designed to be “populist” in a way that is no threat to the upper class, because it cannot help but punch down). The conservative and pro-corporate elements of our society want nothing more than to associate AOC’s moderate socialism with baby-eating, as if Cormac McCarthy’s The Road were a leftist how-to manual.
We live in a strange time. I’ve seen enough strange stuff to have a sense of the nation’s politics, and I’ll try to answer the question, What the hell is going on? There are three possibilities.
The first possibility for what happened on October 3 is that a woman in poor mental health had an outburst. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for security reasons if nothing else, had to operate on this assumption and respond to the woman with compassion while not confirming her assertions. Here’s the thing to remember: AOC is not your typical bourgeois liberal who preaches compassion but avoids conflict with the afflicted or poor. She’s seen real shit. She’s worked with the public– as a waitress in Manhattan. She knows that ridicule is not how to handle a volatile situation.
The second possibility, because of the time we live in, and because of the exceedingly low character of the corporate upper class and today’s political right, is that this spectacle was created to humiliate the left. Several right-wingers are claiming that climate change activism is triggering “hysteria”. Others are arguing (in bad faith) that because Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately denounce infantivory and the bombing of Russia, that leftists and liberals are secretly cozy with these terrifying ideas. It is possible (although I don’t consider it likely) that this woman was an actor commissioned to damage the image of the left, of the environmental movement, and of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Green New Deal.
The last thing I want to do is accuse an ostensibly mentally ill person of acting in bad faith. As I said, I don’t consider it likely that she’s a “troll”, but the possibility requires discussion insofar as the the right has already used the event as an opportunity to argue in bad faith. Yes, people are actually saying that intelligent moderate socialists are on the fence about cannibalism.
Again, this is all an effort to create a false equivalency between leftist non-denial of climate change and the deranged right-wing conspiracy theories (like “white genocide”) that lead to violence.
So, while I don’t think it’s likely, I consider it possible that certain upper-class, conservative, or pro-employer authoritarian elements in our society have arranged this spectacle.
A third possibility, a more likely variant on the second, is: it’s a mix of both. It’s possible that this woman was a mentally ill person (not a bad-faith “troll”) but also that she was directed to Ocasio-Cortez’s town hall for the purpose of having a mental health crisis in public, harming the left. Does this seem far-fetched? Perhaps, but it’s the Silicon Valley playbook. It’s only a matter of time before the entire alt-right begins to use it.
For several years, it has been a common practice in the venture-funded technology industry (“Silicon Valley”) to recruit the homeless to harass guests as, for example, a rival’s launch party. I don’t think this is done to disrupt business operations, because I don’t think it’s very effective; it’s more of a mechanism to threaten and annoy one’s adversaries. I bring it up not because it’s underreported, and also because it’s in extremely bad taste.
I know about this tactic from personal experience. Some of my readers know that, since 2011, I’ve had to deal with fascist attacks on my career and reputation. I’m at least half a million dollars poorer (and that’s a conservative estimate) than I would be, had I not been fending off assaults from literal fascists my entire career. I’ve had written job offers rescinded, more than once, when a fascist sympathizer (and, likely, actual fascist) discovered online that I have said positive things about antifa (which literally means no more and no less than antifascism). We live in a time when to be rational and humane (both of which stand in opposition to fascism) is to be political; but we also live in a time where to “be political” upsets proudly and self-assertedly “apolitical” entities like corporate employers.
I’ll share just one example. A few years ago, I interviewed for a machine learning engineer position at a reputable Chicago trading firm. The team wanted to make an offer; an executive blocked it. Why? He discovered my mild criticism of an unethical (and, likely, illegal) corporate practice unrelated to trading or finance. He formed the opinion that if a publicly “political” person were discovered to work at the firm (even in a non-executive role) it would be a publicity risk. Here’s the kicker, though: this fascist assault occurred in June 2013, long before fascism was part of the national conversation. In 2013, a right-wing takeover of this nation (already well into progress, but through private employers rather than government) seemed unthinkable.
Authoritarians do not have an ideology in the classical sense. It is not about “free markets” for them; it is not about tradition or philosophical conservative. They are the win-at-all-costs players. They will gladly weaponize our society’s most vulnerable people.
I have stood in vocal opposition to Silicon Valley’s coziness with fascism– before 2016, the employer-nucleated fascism-lite our society tolerated because it was not overtly racist, misogynist, or warlike; after 2016, the expressed literal fascism that is killing people– and, as a result of this, I’ve endured considerable harassment. I was banned from Hacker News and Y Combinator–owned Quora in the summer of 2015 on false pretenses that, if the claims were true, would cause embarrassment. I’ve been harassed on the streets by deranged, ostensibly homeless, people. In many cases, it’s been clear that they “knew” (or, more likely, had recently been told) my name and affiliations. I’ve been ordered by people I’ve never met to stop writing about certain topics. There was a period of time when I could not go to San Francisco– I feared for my life.
I bring this up because it is not a new tactic for the right wing to weaponize our society’s most vulnerable and unfortunate people. Is that what happened at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s town hall, which the right is disingenuously using to equate moderate socialism with infantivory? I don’t know. We’ll probably never know. But it happens, and it will happen more in the future as our society’s corporate, fascist, and authoritarian interests gear up for the fight of their lives– which happens to be, as it were, the fight of our lives as well.