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The Affronted Class

Published onNov 24, 2020
The Affronted Class

Lately, even the whitest of white boys are finding themselves without security. Automation renders the jobs of once privileged, exempt, insulated classes of technical and creative workers increasingly vulnerable to obsolescence. The magic kingdom of disrupting this and innovating that and pivoting other people’s lives out from under them has caught up with them too. Nevertheless, the precarity that these privileged classes are now experiencing is not comparable in degree to those who have lacked such racial, gendered, and economic privilege.

They are not taking it well. Some seem to have the right idea, and think about organizing as workers, or subjecting the final goals of their work to ethical and political scrutiny. Others take their vexation out in counter-productive ways. Some even become fash, as it is now the fashion to call (neo)fascists. Some are reacting in even stranger ways, as we shall see.

Think of Evan Peters’ Kai Anderson in American Horror Story: Cult, a Trump-loving unemployed and precarious white boy who starts a white supremacist cult that attracts women of color, queers, and liberals. His close relationship with his Clinton-supporting sister furthers AHS: Cult’s incisive observation: responses to precarity are increasingly strange and illogical, and the liberal Democrat has more in common with a Trump-touting fash than she cares to admit.

Neither a bourgeois nor a proletariat, as Silicon Valley’s start-up industry rearranges the very notion of ownership of the means of production, this is a newly affronted class that consists of those who thought they were no longer workers – at least not blue-collar, manual workers. They had once shared a sense of being exempt from the relentless logic of exploitation. Now they and their descendants find the good life slipping out of their hands. The affronted class is what has become of the secure workers of the mid-twentieth century, who thought they were experts on how to bunker the good life.

“Tech Bro” Feelings

One archetype of the affronted class has a name, and indeed it is a stereotype. The figure of the “tech bro” is an outgrowth of this new landscape of specifically bourgeoise masculine vulnerability. It is used to describe a subculture of mostly male and mostly white (or white-acting) tech workers and entrepreneurs associated with the masculinist culture of Silicon Valley. White programmers occupy a privileged position within California’s economy, a class position that historically emerged in conjunction with white workers’ anxieties about indentured Asian laborers in the mid-nineteenth century.1

For convenience, let’s date the rise of tech bro discourse as emerging post-2007–2008 financial crisis, when the critique of the tech industry’s normalization of a technocratic, libertarian, privileged, meritocratic culture of labor exploitation and exclusion along lines of class, gender, and race went mainstream.2

The tech bro identity and lifestyle cuts across fields such as computer science, design, and engineering. What is particularly ironic is that many in the affronted class have actively contributed to, if not outright designed, the means of their own demise. Consider how machine learning ultimately displaces the technological authority of lower-rank computer programmers. The programmer feels no longer in control, no longer capable of grasping what he (or sometimes she) creates. One might wonder at this point if even Google understands its own search algorithms.3

Old techniques of regaining control no longer work. The familiar strategies of cracking open the black box, fighting the man, pushing against the system have lost their grip. Those once empowered to push back, to make the world anew in their own image, long for what they took to be only theirs: agency, control, authorship, voice, actionability. The playful, daring, untraceable figure of the hacker or the hacker class has been rendered obsolete in spite of the best efforts of the more class-conscious of their kind.4

The newly diminished tech worker, imagined as de facto white and male, wrestles with the relinquishment of bygone fantasies of modern progress and the security it has long represented for some at the expense of others: the American middle class, the nuclear family, technological promise, economic development. White boys’ sudden shock is however not a coming to terms with the violent destruction of the modernist project of reproducing the world in their image. Attempts to “solve” the tech industry’s new precaritization have produced not a reckoning with its own attachment to a legacy of celebrating progress and technological advancement, but a reimagining of masculinity as either a nostalgic return to traditional values or a neo-colonial project.

The Return to Craft

In the United States, the “maker” is another figure that has grown out of the affront to newly vulnerable white masculinity. The rise of a global “maker’s movement,” as it has become known, was born in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–2008. The Western tech industry witnessed a return to craft, a nostalgic longing for what some (mostly men) once had: a sense of agency and control. The spokespeople for makers were prominent figures (mostly men, some but not all white) in the American and European tech industries. Makers, they said, were “returning” to a masculinity and security that had been lost under mass production, deindustrialization of the global north, globalization, outsourcing, and automation. This masculinity was grounded in a deep connection with the machine, a hands-on engagement with technology (and by extension nature, materials, and life itself), and authentic forms of craftsmanship.5 We see this lost form of masculinity as part of what once empowered men to retain agency and protected their work from feminization during early-twentieth-century industrialization.6

This nostalgic return to craft “is not your father’s DIY” according to one of its spokemen, Chris Anderson.7 Yet many invoke a familiar yet distant father figure; what they can no longer hold tight in their hands is what made their fathers manly, masculine, wholesome. This father is of a previous era, an authoritative, benevolent, successful middle-class man, in control of the inner workings of his car and his household, tamed, managed, and loved through principles of rationality, ingenuity, and tinkering. The newness of this DIY is in fact revolutionary for its proponents,8 because the maker’s tools and instruments, from 3D printing to open-source hardware platforms, seemingly give the individuals control, not just over craft but over the means of production.9

The nostalgic longing of men like Anderson for a time that once was, to return a sense of agency and control to white boys, fails to grapple with their complicity in colonial and neo-colonial projects of exploitation. This nostalgia is fundamentally about recuperating masculine privilege and protection from the precarity implied in the 2007–2008 financial crisis’ attack on the promise of technological progress.

The techno elite have responded to anger about precarity generated by the digital economy in the style of their corporate-colonizer forebears. Hands over ears, they refuse to hear the complaints from the precarious; they sweet-talk their way out of accountability, and fantasize about how to escape with their money after their empires fall.

Neo-Colonial Tech Tours and Apocalyptic Escape Plans

For his testimony to the US Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary Committees in 2018, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wore a suit and tie – as if wearing grown-up men’s clothes would prove to the world that his company could be trusted to do some adulting for a change. He talked about Facebook’s failure to prevent political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and foreign powers from influencing US voters. He shared his vision of Facebook as “an idealistic and optimistic company,” a company that is primarily “focused on all the good that connecting people can do”10 – as if this kind of happy talk would make scrutiny of Facebook’s vast engines of surveillance go away.

The assumption in Zuckerberg’s pitch is that connecting the world’s population to one another via the internet, or rather via Facebook, will, hey presto, solve the problems of intensifying precarity. This techno-utopian vision of connectivity obscures the extent to which these connections themselves secure the proprietary platform that enables it and from which Facebook extracts both data and rent. Zuckerberg’s attempts to subsume the global population into its branded theme park as if for our own good – for example, Zuck’s push for India to adopt Free Basics by Facebook – elides a desire to route ever more user data through his company’s servers, capturing information, and analyzing it to improve the platform and increase the value of Facebook stocks. Facebook is exemplary of an emerging model of class rule based on asymmetries of information. You get access to your own friends, or to distraction, or to vital information, or to porn, but only in morsels. Information in the aggregate belongs always and only within the black box of the corporation.

This kind of corporate power through asymmetries of information has to keep growing and growing. Back in 2016, Zuckerberg traveled to Nigeria and Kenya, where he met up with the key actors of what the Facebook CEO called “Africa’s emerging IT ecosystem.” More happy talk. Zuckerberg played into stories that have proliferated in Western news media outlets and that portray regions at the so-called former periphery now as the rising center of contemporary innovation, hopeful in a moment of doubt over the promises of the Western tech industry, modern progress, and the tech industry’s complicity.

From Africa to China, zones of the so-called former “tech periphery” are celebrated for their efforts to follow the footsteps of Silicon Valley. Kenya is dubbed the “Silicon Savannah” for its advances in digital finance, tech incubators, and local IT innovations such as BRCK and the Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform among others. Shenzhen, in southeastern China, is the “Silicon Valley of Hardware,” celebrating the region once labeled as backwards and fake, having escaped the West’s perils of intellectual property regimes and modernization. There is probably some desert somewhere being celebrated as the “Silicon Silica.”

In these happy stories, necessity and lack of resources in the so-called developing world are celebrated as key to the transformative power of innovation. Erik Hersman, an entrepreneur who grew up in Kenya and Sudan, and who refers to himself as “the white African,” describes this sentiment in a TED talk as: “If it works in Africa it works everywhere.”11 Regions including Kenya and southern China are rendered as a hopeful toolkit where the promises of Western tech production can be recuperated, despite their backwardness and underdevelopment. Neo-colonial aspirations couple with neo-orientalist tropes of othering.

However, the ways in which technologists are responding to this new-found sense of insecurity are not always so practical. Silicon Valley elites have started constructing elaborate and fantastical plans for escaping the apocalypse. The imagined result of global climate change, economic catastrophe, or even left-wing uprisings against the 1 percent, the ideologies of tech neo-reactionaries – the Peter Thiels and Mencius Moldbugs of the world – turn to the persistent reactionary strategy of exit or escape to preserve a privilege they anticipate will slip from their grasp.

The Seasteading Institute’s fantasy is to build an artificial island, a free-floating, hyper-libertarian city-state, bobbing on the rising oceans amid the plastic islands. Others fantasize about constructing underground bunkers in relatively “desolate” regions that have escaped extraction and depletion, such as New Zealand.12

Then there’s the ultimate fantasy of repeating the imperial gesture on an interplanetary scale. Let’s terraform Mars! That digitally accelerated economies of depletion are doing something like “Venus-forming” the earth with a runaway greenhouse effect can then be quietly forgotten.

What these white boy fantasies have in common is an escape from zones of depletion, depletion in which they may very well be implicated, before the precarity and toxicity they generate catches up with them.

The Promise of Self-Improvement

Our technocrats seek to extricate and insulate themselves from the generalized feeling of insecurity. At the same time, they have constructed networks that fueled the proliferation of digitally mediated ethno-nationalisms, open calls to abandon even the most superficial forms of democracy, published desires for a future world order comprised of hyper-reactionary, neo-mercantilist corporate monarchies, and a heaping trash of conspiracy theories about faked moon landings, vaccines causing autism, and the earth truly being flat. Culture and communication become zones depleted not just of what is factually true but of what is usefully imaginative. It is as if our digital overlords feel safer in their gated community if those of us outside of it are at each other’s throats. The most provocable among those who find themselves on the wrong side of the velvet rope is the affronted class. Whiteness does not necessarily get you a first-class – or even business-class, or even economy-plus-class – seat on the lifeboat any more.

Theorists who hope to understand those who once belonged to the welfare state’s synthetic white middle class are faced with a double-bind. Critique can take seriously the disaffection of a white population that feels exposed to vulnerability, many perhaps for the first time, as the conditions of precarity are becoming increasingly generalized. On the other hand, we feel nothing but disgust for the racism, gender and sexual discrimination, xenophobia, classism, and a more general hatred of difference that so often becomes the refuge from anxiety. White boys are entering the de-pelted zone, where their skins do not always save them. All too often their response is to strap on a layer of crusader armor.

Newly disempowered white boys also seek the restoration of their fragile egos in the promise of other forms of self-improvement – an economization and bastardization of the possibilities of covens of care. One line of self-help that seems to be specifically designed to direct white men away from more radical responses to their new-found vulnerabilities comes from high priest of the anxious white boys: Jordan Peterson.13 With a mix of soft psychology, self-help platitudes, and pseudo-intellectual conspiracy theories about ethnic studies and women’s studies, and a just-so story about lobsters, Peterson presents his followers with the gift of an object onto which they can project their nebulous anxieties: the figure of the cultural Marxist. He tells them that the proponents of “identity politics” are actually communists in sheep’s clothing, and that postmodernism is really just masked Marxism. While capitalism further erodes their life-worlds, Peterson channels the resentment of his white male followers towards women and people of color.

Talking heads of the Peterson type exploit the dynamics of the information swamp in which we are all obliged to fish for morsels of entertainment and information. Being against something or someone in the name of a value people can be persuaded they already hold, and which is claimed as an immutable truth, generates more heat than light. The information extraction zones designed for Facebook and its rivals share the quality of feeding off quantities rather than qualities of information, and hence positive feedback loops of outrage and spite are not a bug but a valuable feature of their design.

The existence of such figures puts any counter-strategy into a double-bind. Ignore them and they capture fleeting attention, in this case of anxious white boys. Engage with them and you legitimate them and add clicks and likes to their profiles. The attempt to pull back the attention of white boys from such figures can’t be imposed on all those they are so keen to other. It’s a job for specialists. If one wanted an exemplary counter-tactic, one could be with Natalie Wynn, whose YouTube video channel ContraPoints began as an attempt at persuading those attracted to the language of affronted masculinity to think otherwise.14

What makes it work, curiously enough, is that Wynn is a trans woman. Her transition happened throughout the making of the videos, and one can trace a double-path of her providing ways of thinking counter to the mimetic rage of affronted masculinity and at the same time her moulting out of masculinity into her own person. Not every troubled white boy is a trans woman, of course. But every troubled white boy could be somebody else. Every troubled white boy has it in their power to give up on the fantasy of belonging with the Zuckerbergs and Musks on the shuttle to Mars – which will leave, if it ever does, without them anyway.

Like Wynn, what we ask of the affronted class is, instead of clutching at supremacy to numb the pain of precarity, to mobilize against engines of capitalism, which starts with an acknowledgement of shared but unevenly distributed precarity. To borrow from Fred Moten, “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”15

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