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⚡️Hegemony Now ft. Jeremy Gilbert
THURSDAY: Tech-finance, pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will
Our guest for this Thursday, January 19 at 3-4 pm PT is Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural & Political Theory at the University of East London.
His book, Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (And How We Win it Back), analyzes how big tech corporations and their products have strengthened 21st century neoliberalism.
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📖 hegemony now by jeremy gilbert and alex williams
by Arushi Bandi // edited by
What is neoliberal hegemony and exactly how did it come to be? I remember my aunt recalling her West Virginian teenage years in the 70s: “No one cared about getting rich, they just wanted to settle down with a white picket fence.” Compare that now with a comment I heard a tech bro make in California: “One million dollars doesn’t hit like it used to.” This is the question at the heart of Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (And How We Can Win It Back), the scope of which takes Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams on a broad survey of the last century: from analyzing hip-hop and deconstructing the American classroom to redefining the terms “politics” and “power”.
Gilbert and Willliams’ main theses are informed heavily by the work of Anthony Gramsci, the Italian political theorist and critic working during Mussolini’s rule. Gramsci understood hegemony as a small group determining “the general direction of travel” of a society, often relying on the capacity of a larger group to adopt the same ‘common sense’ as them, understood in Hegemony Now to mean a worldview presented as “neutral and unchallengeable”. Through this lens, the book explores how the views conferred on us by tech-finance serve only to keep us running for same-day treats on their precarity-inducing, gadget-strapped hamster wheel: you deserve the best products, therefore the market must remain free, and the only way to stop running is to become one of them.
Yet the book opens and closes with the assertion that neoliberalism is dying. Gilbert and Williams show that many citizens of America and non-Western countries never really bought into the idea of neoliberalism — it was often enforced through organized violence or passively consented to as citizens accepted their new identities as consumers first. So what happens now when we decide the deal is off? We don’t want new clothes, they all have microplastics anyways. In the midst of this decay, we may find a moment ripe for change.
This hegemony would like us all to be “functional neoliberal subjects that compete in the labour market, borrow, and consume.” Most of us must compete for labor and borrow; I wonder if it is in the third act of consumption that as acting individuals we might be able to tip the scale ever slightly in our favor. In resisting the urge to consume, we also resist our pacification towards the greater system. However pointless it may seem to leave a store without buying or not clicking on an Instagram ad, is it not an exercise in agency?
Perhaps this is harder now than ever before. With our reflections constantly being shoved back into our faces in screens and apps abound, appearing as the right type of person — and therefore the right type of consumer — is no longer a materialistic and shallow endeavor, it seems to be the morally correct one. But what is the experience of scrolling down a feed if not a purely consumptive one? Our role as consumers has expanded from that of shoppers to experience-seekers and brand-loyalists, then doubled back in the form of influencers and “creators”. But as Gilbert and Williams note in the chapter “Platform Power,” the greater our participation, the more market-value accrued to those who own the platforms — not us. The present day corollary to Wendell Berry’s “Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer” may well be “Why I am Not Going To Download TikTok”. Where he speaks of most technological progress as the “degradation and obsolescence of the body”, we may think of degradation and obsolescence of the mind; what else to make of feeds and algorithms, DALL·E, Lensa, ChatGPT? If we are to resist the path of neoliberal hegemony, one that has moved on from machines and seeks to make a twisted definition of “intelligence” its next target, we must find a way to either use these deeply intrusive technologies without giving them power over us, or simply be rid of them altogether.
Reading this book as a highly “functional neoliberal subject” working in tech myself, I wonder just how much of software is dependent on this hegemony. Gilbert and Williams speak of attempts to co-opt the platforms propped up by hegemony, such as activists organizing on mainstream social media. But just as Audre Lorde proclaimed “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” can any counter-hegemonic movement that hopes to properly implicate corporations really be organized on Facebook? There may be need for a greater role of “small tech” in a counter-hegemonic movement, but the professional class of software engineers benefit from their current position and comprise the social unit keeping neoliberalism alive. To refer to Wendell Berry again: “Is the life of a corporate underling — even acknowledging that corporate underlings are well-paid — an acceptable end to our quest for human dignity and worth?” Many technologists are willing to take pay cuts to find more fulfilling work and move to smaller organizations in hopes of no longer being just “a cog in the machine”. Neoliberalism requires scale to operate, but it is oftentimes precisely in the scaling of business where workers are left behind. I think of initiatives such as Community Memory: locally-oriented, community-owned software built in conjunction with the people who use it is necessary if we are to redeem technology in this moment.
Hegemony Now offers hope for such a counter-hegemonic movement in its consistent refusal to admit to narrow interpretations of people and how they act politically. In a standout 35-page long chapter, the authors exhort ‘interests’ — potential future states of actuality and social goods that come out of them — rather than identity or values as the main motivating political factor of social groups. It is in the re-reading of people as multiplicities, with votes not tied strictly to skin color or faith, that we can assemble previously unconsidered coalitions and reinstate a social democracy. As the authors state plainly in the last chapter, “if you want to persuade people to follow you, tell them what’s in it for them. Don’t confuse the issue with arguments over right and wrong.”
And so the lasting impression is clear: we have our work cut out for us. Hegemony Now ends beautifully with the famous Gramsci quote: “Pessimisim of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Indeed, this is the spirit in which it was written and in which we must march on into the new year if there is hope of an egalitarian and collective, dignified future to be found someplace ahead.
Arushi Bandi is a software engineer living and working in San Francisco.
Reboot publishes essays and interviews reimagining tech’s future every week. If you liked this and want to keep up, subscribe below ⚡️
Three related recs from Arushi:
The book Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams is still one of the most galvanizing and provocative things I’ve read about tech and politics.
ICYMI,started a Substack. Seriously.
💝 closing note
From the community this week:
Our friends at Logic Magazine published their latest issue, Pivot. The cover was designed by Reboot fellowship mentor Justin Carder, and it features an “Intergenerational Struggle Session” conversation between Logic’s editorial team and myself, Jessica Dai, and Emily Liu at Reboot.
- published a new podcast episode discussing the concept of an AI Bill of Rights.
- wrote a blog post examining the ethics of Lensa and other AI art.
Toward an optimism of the will,
Jasmine & Reboot team