2007 - 2021

Algorithms and Pasta: Empty Aisles and Facebook Purges

As we glide smoothly from ‘Take Back Control’ to complete system failure, the CoronaBrexit reveals a broken economy working to undermine a functioning society.

As Vinay Gupta has put it (Pandemics and Coronavirus): “A pandemic is when society as a whole gets sick. It affects individuals – individuals get sick – but society as a whole also gets sick – it affects the structure of the culture.”

This is right – and it’s a far cry from the narrative we are being fed which is something along the lines of: this will be over soon and we’ll all get back to normal.

But what’s being revealed is not just that we have lost control of everything but that the system that’s failing was designed to be that way.

There is a mirror between our food systems and our communication systems: we have outsourced both and created a single point of failure and a single point of control. Food and information can be shut off at a whim.

Many of us have been finding Facebook posts relating to corona virus being taken down. As Peter McColl has written, this is:

“The danger of handing over the tools of communication to secretive and uncountable corporations: Facebook has just purged a huge number of posts about Covid-19 as “not meeting community standards”. Totally unacceptable. Although they’re saying it’s a mistake related to their algorithm, it shows just how powerful they are in removing content, which they could do deliberately. Time to put in place the rules and regulations we’d have for a public broadcast license.”

Whether this is really a mistake or a trial for controlling information is not clear, but McColl is quite right, it points to the need for these big tech giants to be under some form of public control so that we can have some transparency and regulation.

It’s the same with our food systems which we have given over to four companies: Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys and Morrisons. Whilst the panic buying is driven by fear, the situation is exacerbated by a ‘just in time’ system that ensures that stock is permanently in transit.

But this isn’t just about the technics of the economic system. The pandemic is exposing layers and layers of morbid absurdity about capitalist economics.

As Simon Springer writes:

“We are witnessing, in real-time and with stunning consequence, the stone-cold fact that markets are an ineffective mediator of resources, prone to the worst vagaries of herd mentality. Perceived impending shortages of toilet paper owing to the spread of COVID-19 set off widespread panic. We might be inclined to laugh at the implausibility of the whole scenario, but whether the situation is real or imagined is beside the point. The truth, which in this case may appear stranger than fiction, is that markets operate in the sweet spot between scarcity and fear.”

The market system is discarding workers under the euphemism of “unpaid leave” and the entire “bail out” (already dubbed Tory Wonga) seems more like a bonanza for the Rentier class.

The ideas put forward so far, that tenants should ‘negotiate with landlords’ is so pathetic that it will likely lead to social disorder if not drastically improved on. If there’s not a rent freeze people will cascade quickly into destitution and chaos. This is absolutely certain. If the political elite snuggling safely in the warmth of their mortgaged homes are blissfully unaware of the level of existing stress and precarity in the hosing market, this just reveals more about the level of disconnect between leaders and ordinary people.

If they really think that they can act like this without consequence its just another reminder of the massive disconnect that exists and is being amplified by the virus.

The privatisation of food and the privatisation of knowledge are not inevitable – in fact they are now shown to be structurally useless.

Calls to have collective and public means and institutions don’t have to be calls for a monolithic centralism. Part of the reason the Corbyn project failed was that it reeked of 70s leftism. But the Open Source movement, the P2P movement, the movement of the Commons and the emergent movements of radical municipalism all have a far greater potential to carry us out of this madness.

The potential for creative change through crisis is evident in every conversation with every stressed person and the absurdity of the systems we’ve inherited are exposed hourly.



Comments (18)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    Extracted a pregnant quotation (there are always those in your articles) as the lede to my tweet, and tagged the link to a gaggle of troublemakers. Thanks again for great writing and timely analysis.

    1. Thank you – I didnt know I had pregnant quotations (!)

  2. Daniel Raphael says:

    Mike, I want to add this link from an article directly relevant to what you were discussing. Though the referenced examples are in the US, the problems are completely interechangeable–as is the core analysis. https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2020/03/theres-nothing-so-political-as-a-pandemic.html

  3. Graeme McCormick says:

    So insightful as usual.

    Globotics will have a huge effect on countries. We shouldn’t fear it but use it to enable a new positive localism where we start to design , manufacture and produce more of what we need.

    The secret to its success for our country is that all have a financial stake in it. Ten per cent of a universal Citizens Income should be invested in Scottish enterprise so that everyone has a stake. That would create a huge source of funding for Scottish business .

  4. MBC says:

    The court and prison system will soon be inoperable. If people get behind with their rent because of corona lay offs landlords will not be able to do much about it.

    1. Bill says:

      Except send in the thugs from those organisations that have brutalised the public sector. -running prisons, deporting people and detaining ‘illegal immigrants’.

      We are not far from a serious meltdown.

  5. Sue says:

    There is even a view by a German Virologist (Dr Wolfgang Wodarg on You Tube) that the whole thing is a massive over- reaction based on skewed testing of already sick populations. 10 minutes- definitely worth a watch)

  6. Alan Bissett says:

    From Friday 13th, when the scale of the crisis became apparent and the mood changed, myself and other volunteers in our village immediately started to organise an outreach programme to check on the elderly and vulnerable, a Food Committee, to plan for scarcity, a register of local skillsets as means of establishing a trading/bartering system in the event that money becomes short or devalued, and an Allotments Committee, to requisition the green sites and gardens in the area for the growing of vegetables.

    The energy has been intense and sudden and is giving us something practical to focus on, something which makes us feel less impotent. We are planning for the possibility that central or local government, least of all *the market*, won’t be able to save us.

    This needs to start happening *right now* in every suburb, scheme and village in the land, if it isn’t already.

    1. Wul says:

      I’m interested in this approach Alan.

      Is there a particular locus that your community is organising around? E.g. a development trust, church, community council? How did you create the catalyst for your actions & planning?

      Where I live, there is a “call to arms” by the local 24Hrs / 7days a week ASDA mega-store. They are desperate for workers and are taking on anybody from a symptom-free household. Wal Mart to the rescue!

      1. Alan Bissett says:

        No, it was largely people unattached to the existing community structures who have pushed forwards with the new initiatives, but because there has been such speed and energy the established Community Council and local Development Trust are lending their support. A new infrastructure is being created organically, out of sheer need.

        That’s great about ASDA, although we’re preparing for a situation where we might not be able to depend on the supermarkets.

    2. Judith Brennan says:

      In our deprived area of the northeast of England, there is a high level of food poverty.
      In response, local activists have set up a scheme to distribute small window box vegetable gardens to those who simply cannot afford to buy.
      The worst of reliance on supermarkets is not the food they provide, but the unquestioning acceptance of their monopoly. Perhaps what is a sad necessity will be the basis of future freedom.

      1. Wul says:

        Judith, yes. I shall be shopping for seeds tomorrow. Even if its only a bathtub-sized “lazy-bed” of salad leaves, I can look forward to some vitamins in the summer. And the humble spud is a good belly filler and so easy to grow.

        Alan, good ideas and actions in your community. Inspiring to hear what’s going on.

  7. Lorna Campbell says:

    Good piece, Mr Small. As you say, nothing shows up the deep-rooted flaws in any society, in any era, than an existential crisis – and this is one right here. We will cruise along until something really serious occurs – for example, being unable to import essentials because globalisation has taken much of our manufacturing base out of the UK. Scotland is in a worse position than England because we lack independent means of exporting/importing without accessing English ports and airports; we lack any real independent means of taking different decisions from Westminster’s, albeit the FM has shown mettle here, but it must be limited by centralised decision-making; and we are half-in and half-out of the EU without any agreement on our part or means to reverse the position we find ourselves in, when it has become very evident that cross-border and cross-Continent co-operation and experience are essential in our shrinking world. That need not preclude civic nationalism and independence, which have always been aimed at close co-operation between nation states within the global sphere and which can work very well until you come face to face with national exceptionalism, which, in turn, is a very different kind of nationalism – the dangerous kind.

    Both the Tories and New Labour relaxed regulation and allowed the market to run rampant, to an extent. Along the way, we lost social democracy as a societal leveller (to a degree only, of course) and the ability to marry strictly regulated capitalism to social democracy. This was, indeed, deliberate and ideological and took us further and further away from the Scandi models where, in Sweden, for example, free medical care and hospitals sit alongside private health care and hospitals and is, largely, successful, because of the way the system is run. Personally, albeit I am on the Left, but not quite an all-out Socialist, I think that capitalism is the result of moving from a purely hunter-gatherer society where everything required to be shared to a more agricultural and settled existence. People had something with which to barter, then to make a profit from, and it took off from there, so I think it might be unrealistic to expect people to forsake all forms of capitalism. However, that it requires to be regulated and held in check is a no-brainer.

    Toryism since Thatcher has, if not actually sought to exploit, has encouraged exploitation, and that is where the problems lie: the unscrupulous and greedy are always poised to make a killing at others’ expense. The new wave of landlords, many with a large portfolio of former council properties, could prove to be a real hazard now, and the banks have, once again, been given the green light to arrange mortgage breaks, business loans, etc., with no sense of irony prevailing. If the vulnerable are left to carry the financial burden and social cost of this pandemic crisis, I think we will see a ‘revolution’ in the true sense of the word, and rampant market capitalism and globalisation will both be pushed back – not destroyed entirely; I would doubt that it can be – and the people of the UK, including those of Scotland, will be looking at ways to gain greater control over their lives, their societies, their futures. We may yet see a return, perhaps from a different perspective, of the post WW II mindset when the people, newly released from war, from strict rationing and from the bovine acceptance that the pre war situation was how it had to be. Nothing at all has to be. There is nothing inevitable about political systems: they are always the result of choice or lack of choice. The people of England chose the Tories with the ideology that goes with that choice; we did not. The post pandemic era might yet see profound and lasting change to the shape of politics, and of political choices, in these islands.

    1. Lorna Campbell says:

      Oops, sorry. Also wanted to say that even pandemics and wars, as we should know, can be exploited by the unscrupulous, and governments never miss the chance to corral and silence when such an opportunity arises. It’s in their DNA. We should be wary.

  8. John O'Dowd says:

    “The market system is discarding workers under the euphemism of “unpaid leave” and the entire “bail out” (already dubbed Tory Wonga) seems more like a bonanza for the Rentier class.”

    You don’t need to have read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” to realise that the tenets of ‘disaster capitalism’ are in already operative. Don’t let a crisis go to waste! Part II of the 2008 crash is now underway. It was never resolved by the means taken – Government ‘money’ pumped into the banks – and used to repair their balance sheets and maintain the Bonus Culture – rather than acting on the real economy, and bailing out the victims of big Finance. The perpetrators were, and again will will be rewarded – they do after all own all the governments of the ‘free world’.

    The result of 2008 was a pile of toxic paper and debts – expanding exponentially to a level that can never be matched by value in the real economy. Well, its crashing down (or being allowed to crash down) now, under the cover of CoVID19. Never let a good crisis go to waste – and if one doesn’t come along – then engineer it.

    Emergency powers are now being sought – and a supine Parliament will grant them. Marshall Law?

    “The ideas put forward so far, that tenants should ‘negotiate with landlords’ is so pathetic that it will likely lead to social disorder if not drastically improved on”.

    I hear that the Army is already mobilised – some mustering in Strathclyde Park – and Eurocentral – “In support of the Civil Power” Presumably replicated across the UK.

    “Social Disorder” I’m sure will be dealt with!

    1. John O'Dowd says:

      “Marshall Law” should of course be “Martial Law” – can’t even blame predictive text!

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Freudian slip for Marshall Aid or Marshall Plan?

  9. Wul says:

    If we get through this crisis as a society, I think there needs to be some kind of reckoning afterwards. We need to demand a society built as if people (not money) actually matter.

    In the same way that soldiers and citizens recovering from WW2 were not prepared to go back to civilian life without a new, social contract, we, having seen how little safe foothold a worker & family has, need to demand a safe and nurturing society for all.

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