Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reading: Nation of Rebels (a.k.a. The Rebel Sell) by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

Counterculture claims to be revolutionary by its very nature. In fact, it claims to be revolution, especially after the collapse of Communism, which is supposed to have killed Karl Marx dead. However, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter claim in Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (original title: The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can't Be Jammed), not only has counterculture not brought down the system, it has only strengthened it. Even the most furious efforts by the "culture jammers" led by Kalle Lasn and Adbusters magazine can't make a dent against the corporate system, precisely because countercultural "revolutionary" deviance is so profitable. What's the single strongest force driving the explosion of consumer capitalism since that fateful decade, the 1960s? Nothing else but counterculture. As culture jamming is a purely countercultural strategy, it therefore cannot work.

There's a fatal flaw undermining counterculture's effectiveness: it conflates deviance with dissent. The problem is that deviance and dissent are two completely different things. Most deviants, in fact, don't dissent; they're too busy being deviant, and political things bore them. Dissent threatens authoritarian systems, which is why dictators suppress it so ruthlessly (as in the case of the election-stealing theocrats of Iran). Deviance only threatens the accepted morality, or threatens the system only as mere criminality; but if there's little morality left to be accepted, as in the postmodern West, deviance loses its power to shake the system or even shock. And that's why counterculture fails whenever it tries to be revolutionary. Instead, it has become the ultimate consumerist cash cow. Deviance may not be able to bring down oppressive systems, but it sure is interesting enough to sell lots of units. The book's original title is The Rebel Sell for a reason.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reading: Welcome to the Urban Revolution, by Jeb Brugmann

There's a medieval German proverb, "Stadtluft macht frei," which means "City air makes free." The city has always been the alchemical cauldron of human society, the great laboratory of human evolution, the birthplace and home of freedom itself. Now I've found a book, Welcome to the Urban Revolution by Jeb Brugmann, which explains exactly how and why the urban form's changing the human and even natural world. What's more, he even goes so far as to say that the world's cities are coalescing into a network strong enough that we can call it a single World City.

So what makes the urban form so inherently revolutionary? It's a simple matter of the mathematics of human association. In a hunter-gatherer tribe or agricultural village or small town, there's a limited number of people one can associate with. Society is tightly knit and highly conformist. The classic village or small town is notorious for its surveillance networks of town gossips. Social control is much easier in a society where most people are peasants and herdsmen. That's why an agricultural society almost always takes the political form of an absolute monarchy with a feudal hierarchy. This is the traditional form of civilization.

A large city is different. The modern city, which grew out of the medieval city republics modelled on ancient democratic Athens, was built by merchants out of trading posts. The larger and denser it is, the more potential associations a person can have. The more personal associations are possible, the greater diversity and dynamism the city generates. That's why in a capitalist and/or industrial society, the city is always the engine of the economy. Plus, the multiplication of association networks produces a levelling force that, even though capitalism has produced a neofeudal corporatist aristocracy of merchant princes and robber barons, makes the modern city an especially friendly environment for a democratic politics. The inevitable democracy of the city, as Brugmann calls it, makes it extremely difficult for tyrants to hold onto absolute power. For in urban politics as in capitalist economics, as Marx said, "all that is solid melts into air." Modern cities have always had a revolutionary effect on the societies they come to dominate, and all too frequently, whenever social evolution comes up against various forms of institutional stasis up to and including outright despotism, actual revolutions are the result and governments are overthrown. Brugmann gives as examples the fall of the Soviet Union and the Shah of Iran. The nominally Marxist overlords of the absolutist Soviet Empire found that out too late: once they had modernized and urbanized their countries, they found they had created a kind of democratic Frankenstein's monster that destroyed them.

And now the cities of the world, especially the Third World, are growing so large and dense so quickly that the "Great Migration" from the countryside to the cities is fundamentally transforming not only the nature of civilization itself, but even the natural environment planetwide. Though the world is currently organized into nation-states originating in the absolute monarchies that sprang up during the late Middle Ages, both economy and society are now organizing themselves by city regions and networks of cities. The city, not the obsolete nation-state and the international institutions (e.g., the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization) built around it, is the fundamental unit of global civilization today. Sooner or later, the nation-state will have to go, and international institutions will have to become or be made interurban.

Which leads to the major consequence to the urbanization of the entire human race that not many people foresaw, and that's the consolidation of the cities of the world into a World City. The Cosmopolis has usually been dismissed as the pie-in-the-sky ideal of an ancient Greek philosopher named Isocrates. But the industrial and information revolutions have produced a corresponding urban revolution so huge and all-transforming that Isocrates' vision of the World City is finally becoming our reality.

But this has its own problems. For one thing, world industrialism is producing such a mountain of waste that it threatens to destroy the global ecology. Another problem is economic and has to do with urban development: with the recent global economic boom, many countries have simply imported a commoditized urban form, the American suburban "edge city", that is merely plopped right down in place without any care for the surrounding urban context. In many countries, this process (misnamed "urban renewal" in the US) requires massive "slum clearance" and relocations, which tends to cause huge riots. This happens all the time in China, for example.

Marshall McLuhan famously spoke of the "global village." He was only half right. For that matter, the neoliberal globalists are also half wrong. They thought that global capitalism was sufficient to unite the world. The spoke of the world market. What is actually emerging as the true face of globalization is the unification of all the world's civilizations into a single World City, in which every city is a neighborhood and every city region or network is a district. The world is becoming a single city, with all the consequences that entails. This really is a new stage of history. It is, well, revolutionary.

Testing A Heavily Extended Chrome Browser

It's official: Google's Chrome Extensions gallery is now officially open! But even before that, the instant I downloaded the latest developer version of Chrome, I went straight to Chrome Extensions, an unofficial extensions gallery, to load up on extensions. I'm posting this using an official Google extension from the official extensions gallery, called Blog This! Now all I need is a few more of my favorite extensions to appear, and bye-bye Firefox.

The problem with Firefox is that it's gotten bloated, memory-heavy, and processor-intensive over the years. When you load up on extensions, it takes forever to start. I'm the type of person who must must must! pack my web browser with extensions and plugins. Firefox has great extensions, but a heavily extended Firefox has performance issues.

Now the official Chrome extension gallery is officially open. Sure enough, I'm loaded up on extensions. Some of my holdover favorites include IE Tab, StumbleUpon, and WOT, and surely more are coming. The great thing is that they don't slow Chrome down. Maybe it loads a bit slower, but nowhere near as slow as Firefox. Soon enough, I won't need Firefox anymore. I don't use IE itself except for Windows Update (and in IE Tab, in both Firefox and Chrome).

Now I'm waiting for Google to add just one more thing, and that's the "purge memory" button, and I'll be happy...