Skip to content

Political Economy

Data Loss Prevention in the Post-Snowden World – Technology’s deep ties with society and the normative

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAZWAAAAJDEwMDUxMzQxLTU3MDEtNDhkZS04ODk4LWU1NjE3Mzg0YWI0OA

Originally a Linkedin post, thus the tailored tone.

Before looking to technology to prevent a Snowden event, it is important to understand what motivates those behind insider threats. Before looking at expensive DLP solutions or encryption technology that will inevitably impact the end user experience and frustrate employees, one must understand what motivates whistleblowers, and understand the difference between whistleblowing, sabotage and burglary. What causes an employee to grow so dissatisfied and disgruntled that they sabotage their own organisation and livelihood?

Let’s leave aside briefly the non-trivial privacy concerns that Snowden raised and imagine he was an employee in a large organisation. Snowden was not a saboteur nor a burglar, the motivations behind his actions were not driven by financial or retaliatory intents. On watching the many interviews and documentaries, is it clear that Snowden is an independent, analytical thinker with an above-average intelligence, a person of strong personal values who places high importance on ethical behaviour. He also clearly has a passion for his work as an information security professional. Regardless of what one thinks of his motivations or politics, he has shown no signs of mental instability or resentment for his former organisation. He sounds more like a model employee. What led him to commit those actions whose results he was well aware would lead to the loss of a well-paid job and a comfortable life?

It is clear that he felt his employer was engaging in unethical and illegal practices, and he either had no way to raise his concerns without fearing repercussions, or he did raise them and was ignored. Taking the Snowden affair as an analogy, imagine he worked at Enron, or at Volkswagen. No one is suggesting that Volkswagen should have used better software development techniques to make their fraudulent car software harder to detect. No one is suggesting that Enron should have been more clever, and made their embezzlement and deception more ‘sustainable’, perhaps with the use of better big data and BI solutions. Yet this is exactly the reasoning we hear coming from information security vendor marketing shills. As if a technical solution can fix what is mostly caused by toxic work environments and bad management, even if it is made possible due to insufficient information security practices and processes.

Protecting critical data with good technical solutions and processes is still important, as there are many more cases of data theft were the motivations of the attackers are guided by self-interest, much like regular burglary. To again use an analogy, it is one thing to defend your home and family from burglars, it is quite another thing if you consider your family members a threat. Organisations are not the same of course, and the trust levels are lower too. This is the normal societal trust hierarchy, with close family being at the pinnacle, and work colleagues being just a couple rungs below, yet the analogy holds. What solution presents a better value proposition for dealing with a situation of internal family conflict, a hidden camera system or family counselling?

To consider technology in isolation from the normative and the societal is of little use in real-world risk management and information security. Investing in treating employees with respect, better pay and working conditions, better corporate governance, ethical business practices and more tolerance for atypical but original thinkers will probably provide a better return on investment than clunky systems which with enough determination – due to the need to balance security and usability – can usually be circumvented by determined attackers. For every Snowden there are hundred unimaginative employees who might lack the initiative for whistleblowing but also lack the originality and proclivity for independent, analytical thinking that are critical requirements for an organisation’s survival. Snowden’s skills and aptitude are exactly those skills of tech workers that has the tech giants tripping over themselves to find, poach and retain.

If employees feel valued and respected, if the work they do fills them with pride, if independence and critical thinking are encouraged, if business practices are ethical, then the best employees will also be the organisation’s best allies. Leaving time for management to focus on defences against burglars and criminals rather than on finding ways to make it harder for the most valued employees to do interesting things.

An Alternative Critical Political Economy Lineage – Veblen, Galbraith and Bichler & Nitzan

This post is a follow on from my previous post, Capitalism is Not a Useful Concept. While in the previous post my critique is focused on capitalism as a concept, this post presents an alternative lineage in critical political economy which largely puts to rest the Marxian conception of capital, and with it Marx’s historical materialism. This is quite a big claim to make, however I am not claiming to have done it! This work has been done already by the work of major 20th century institutional economists, namely Thorstein Veblen and John Kenneth Galbraith, and by two contemporary researchers, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who build on Veblen’s work.

Why am I interested in dismissing Marxian economics in favour of these institutional economists? Quite simply because these thinkers describe far better than Marx the economic functioning of the world of work and the economic system I have experienced in 15 years as a corporate, white-collar technology worker. Their methodology is more refined. They have incorporated a contingent, evolutionary approach to economic dynamics that did not exist in the 19th century. And they were nonetheless critical political economists.

It seems that to even hint about forgetting Marx in matters of political economy leaves you open to accusations of having being lured to the dark side, that you are an apologist for capitalism (whatever capitalism means), or at the best of times, that you are doing so out of ignorance, and are promptly given more Hegel to read. There seems to be this perception that Marx holds a monopoly on radical, critical political economy, and should you question the Marxian hegemony you cannot anymore perform a critical analysis of the workings of the economic system. A hybrid stance is to bastardise, pick and choose and juxtaposition Marx along with just about anything, in order to create something which is Marxian in name only. I have two theories for this bastardisation approach, it is possibly either done out of timidity, for fear of the immune response of the Marxian hegemony, the jostling for academic careers plays a large part here, or out of genuine affection for dear Marx. I have much sympathy for both these imagined reasons, people do what they need to do to stay in jobs they love, and I have my pet, seminal thinkers too, I cannot help but filter new information through these mentors, ‘oh this reminds me of what Deleuze/Nietzsche said in XYZ’. If your pet thinker turns out to have been wrong, or to have been a staunch Nazi (Heidegger), I can imagine I would probably perform similar mental acrobatics to restore my pet’s good name or contemporary relevance.

Marx wrote widely on a huge array of topics, but what I am specifically concerned with here is his conception of economics, and you just can’t do away with the labour theory of value, or historical materialism, and still consider it Marxian economics, as these are the foundational elements of his economic system. Marx remains unsurpassed in his ambitious vision of how things could, and ought to be, and this normative vision is the essence of the progressive left. This this where Marx’s grandeur lies, and this must not be conflated with his political economy work when critiquing or surpassing him. This is a clever rhetorical stratagem employed the Marxist hegemony, where a critique of Marxian political economy is taken as a critique on the normative vision. Critiquing, or ignoring completely Marxian economics, does not mean the person doing so thinks wage labour exploitation (or clubbing baby seals) is a good thing. And let’s not even go down the path of my-critique-is-more-radical-than-yours, if capitalism is an ill-defined concept, socialism as a concept fairs just as badly. If radical critique, to be considered radical, needs to raise as it deep, radical insight the question of capitalism vs socialism, yet both are badly defined concepts with even vaguer economic policy implications, it becomes instantly apparent what a dead end such dick-sizing competitions become.

That being said, now on to the interesting stuff.

 

Large Corporations and the Market

Galbraith sees the large enterprise which emerged in the 20th century as a planning and risk-mitigation apparatus. As technological innovation advanced since the industrial revolution, the resources required for research and development, as well as the production of commodities have increased dramatically. These resources include yes raw materials and specialised knowledge, in addition to vast amounts of financing and long R&D cycles, Galbraith notes advanced manufacturing requires coordination with other corporations and extensive planning. Another key challenge, as noted by Galbraith in The Affluent Society, was the management of demand for produced goods, by carefully controlling supply and by generating demand for non-essential commodities through marketing. It must be noted that a great deal of economic activity occurs between corporations, and the consumer market is only the most visible market.

 

Planning

Galbraith’s concept of modes of coordination examines two predominant institutional modes for coordinating intra- and inter-institutional transactions. The market system makes use of price signals for coordination, while large organisations use command and administration for coordination. These two dominant modes of coordination give rise to what Galbraith terms the dual economy. For Galbraith, large corporations grew largely to contain market uncertainty, and have largely succeeded now in dominating price signals rather than being dominated by them. In the dual economy, the thousand or so most powerful corporations have developed sophisticated planning and coordinating structures, and this power is so great as to be able to both manage consumer demand through advertising, which influences social attitudes and value judgements, as well as direct state policy objectives. The planning objectives of these corporations are largely concerned with maintaining their position of dominance, rather than concern for society’s needs as a whole. This planning dominance prevents the widespread benefits to society that the affluent society would be able to provide, limiting these benefits to the few.

Read More →

The Refusal of Work – A Brief Review

Nietzsche

Nietzsche, one of the earliest proponents of an anti-work ethic, critiqued primarily the morality of the work ethic. For him the morality of the duty of work was operated as a means of control, which subjugated the development of the individual in favour of the impersonal needs of society. While his specific critique of work may appear as an unremarkable call for unrestrained individualism, his critique of work must be viewed in the context of his wider critique of morality and the values that govern a society. Modern society’s values and moral judgements he deemed insufficient and reactive, he hoped for a society which went beyond the slave morality of fear and resentment, and instead sought its own overcoming. It is this critique of society’s values that we must consider Nietzsche’s anti-work sentiment. Although Nietzsche was not explicitly political, the distinction between atomised individualism, as it is promoted in contemporary consumer culture, and autonomism worthy of a mention here. Both Nietzsche and autonomism rejected the platonic idea that there was a defined place for everyone in society, suited to their work or profession. This notion stunted personal self-discovery and led to an impoverished society, centred on control and slave morality. In autonomism, and many Marxian accounts of worker struggle, the shared problems faced by the workers, which they all felt individually, led to a sense of collectivity in struggle.

 

Lafargue

Paul Lafargue is one of the first to argue for the intelligence of laziness, how aristocratic societies in the classical era despised work and relegated it to slaves. It is interesting to draw parallels to past aristocratic societies and their attitude towards work with the rise of what Piketty terms the super-managers, those who are essentially the modern-day aristocrats, but now do not claim hereditary status for their positions but rather their value as senior leadership. Nietzsche would be cracking a wry smile at this turn of events, today even aristocrats no longer claim the right be above work, but instead pretend to be valuable workers.

 

Russell

Bertrand Russell’s 1935 essay ‘In praise of idleness’, remains very relevant today. In it, Russell examines the incongruence of the view of the moral goodness of productive activity coupled with the moral unsoundness of consumption, or unrestrained enjoyment, noting that consumption and production were closely linked. He questions why if someone were to make an investment in a business activity which proved unsuccessful, this person would be seen differently to one who spent all their money on pleasure and enjoyment. The desirability of work Russell argues comes from pre-industrial society, when there was a class of idle landowners who most certainly did not want their peasants following in their example. Only in industrial society do we have enough wealth and technology to allow greater leisure time. Importantly, Russell raises the feminist issue of unpaid reproductive and household labour, as well as noting that it was finance that allowed us to create this present state of industrial innovation by borrowing against the future.

Read More →

Combating Stultification in Critical Thought: Ranciere, Deleuze, Nietzsche

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

– Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

I decided to look into the history of the workers’ movement, to find out the reasons for the continual mismatching of workers and the intellectuals who came and visited them, either to instruct them or to be instructed by them. It was my good fortune to discover that this relationship wasn’t a matter of knowledge on one side and ignorance on the other, nor was it a matter of knowing versus acting or of individuality versus community.

..

…Emancipation starts from the principle of equality. It begins when we dismiss the opposition between looking and acting and understand that the distribution of the visible itself is part of the configuration of domination and subjection.

It starts when we realise that looking is also an action that confirms or modifies that distribution, and that “interpreting the world” is already a means of transforming it.

…this is what emancipation means: the blurring of the opposition between those who look and those who act, between those who are individuals and those who are members of a collective body.

⁃ Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator

The philosopher of the future is the explorer of ancient worlds, of peaks and caves, who creates only inasmuch as he recalls something that has been essentially forgotten. That something, according to Nietzsche, is the unity of life and thought. It is a complex unity: one step for life, one step for thought. Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create ways of living. Life activates thought, and thought in turn affirms life.

– Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy

This post is a continuation of my previous one on the usefulness of capitalism as a concept. From the quotes above there are several key themes to be explored. The first being the relationship of theory and practice, thought and action, and the tightly-linked second theme is the role of the intellectual. I want to make it clear from the start that when I will be discussing intellectuals or non-intellectuals I have Rancière’s axiom of the equality of intelligences firmly in mind (more on that later), so I’m not talking about certain classes of people (intellectuals) contra some other class (working class). I’m not implying that there are people more adept at the work of thought, and others more oriented towards practical endeavours, what I am concerned with rather is the relationship of the labour of theory to the labour of practice, which Rancière and Nietzsche assert everyone performs to varying degrees.

When I argue that capitalism is not a useful concept, this begs the question of what are theoretical concepts useful for, and to whom? This question is another angle on the question of the relationship of thought and action, theory and practical life. Deleuze has answered both these questions, the former in his last major book ‘What is Philosophy?‘ (WP) and the latter in one of his earliest books, ‘Nietzsche and Philosophy‘ (NP). 

Read More →

%d bloggers like this: