X Politics and Dystopian Tech
This week saw two events which reveal the sort of new politics that surround us. At one the British Prime Minister interviewed Elon Musk like a gushing fan-boy asking him softball questions, at another the billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and the data analysis company Palantir (and huge funder of Trump) gave a lecture in Oxford.
Both were disturbing in different ways.
Rishi Sunak interviewed Musk at the end of their two-day AI conference, billed as the ‘world’s first safety summit’. Sky News Deputy Political Editor Sam Coates called it ‘one of the maddest political events I’ve ever covered’.
After it the PM issued a statement saying; “I know this is an anxiety that people have. We should look at AI much more as a co-pilot than something that necessarily is going to replace someone’s job. AI is a tool that can help almost everybody do their jobs better, faster, quicker, and that’s how we’re already seeing it being deployed.”
But if this seemingly cringeworthy analysis was not bad enough, the body-language of Sunak in interviewing Musk revealed the relationship not just between two men but between democracy and wealthy power. That the richest man in the world is powerful is not a revelation, but the extent and depth of power wielded by a tech giant in the modern age is astonishing and terrifying. The event seemed to confirm most peoples worst fears that AI will not be controlled by anyone at all, as that is ideologically incompatible with hyper-capitalism, and that if anyone was to control anything it would be our tech-overlords with our democratically elected leaders giggling in the background while being handed sweeties.
It was revealed that Musk has the capacity to turn on (or off) access to the internet in Gaza via his satellite system Starling and can help or hinder Ukraine in their war against Russia. This is tech-billionaire as overlords, and this farcical and embarrassing interview revealed our democracy as incapable of responding either to the power of the super-wealthy or the implications of technology. Why would they if, for example our PM is literally married to such power and data-controlling entities? Among all this banal bro chatter, was the more chilling tweet by the alleged leader of the UK promoting the event in which he replaces the No 10 with an X on Downing Street:
If this wasn’t dystopian enough for you, at one point Elon Musk began speculating that AI “friends” might be better than real-life ones. Musk’s proposition was that supercomputers that use advanced algorithms to mimic human contact might present more attractive companions for humanity than real-life friends. The Prime Minister just giggled along.
Frankly this is terrifying and the quicker Sunak is kicked out of office the better and the need to reclaim and re-create the public sphere that has been contaminated by Musk has never been more stark.
What I called (back in 2019) the era of Revolutionary Conservatism is surely upon us, where figures like Musk (and Thiel) finance and control madly erratic and wildly radical and dystopian political movements. Elsewhere – more recently – others notice the same phenomenon. The writer Andy Becket writes of the abandonment of old taboos and assumptions: “Particularly since 2021, as three successive Tory premierships have become exercises in frantic reinvention, but also over a longer period of self-doubt and experimentation, a new Conservatism has been struggling to emerge.”
“Alongside the anti-establishment rhetoric and clumsy lurches to the left have come lunges to the right – or the far right: the endless culture wars against minorities, the authoritarian approach to protest and parliament, and the attacks on any institution that frustrates the Tories’ exercise of power. For years now, the Conservatives have given the impression that they don’t like the society or economy they in large part created – and that dislike, together with their deepening unpopularity, has carried the party into a strange place. Ideas previously considered heretical or too extreme are winning converts there. Feelings of anger and electoral dread mingle with feelings of excitement.”
Brexit as Trasformismo
As the power visibly recedes from both the British and Scottish governing parties this new extremism lands in post-Brexit Britain, but also in post-indy Scotland. This new politics is darkly stupid, brutal and disconnected from principles or vision. Welcome to what Fintan O’Toole called “the United Kingdom of Absurdistan”. O’Toole noted: “Brexit is a very strange kind of revolution – the heroic overthrow of imaginary oppression, in which tragedy and farce are not sequential but simultaneous and deeply interwoven.”
Apart from the chaos and the bad-theatre the emerging reality is that Britain is a deeply unstable place. The mythical “checks and balances” don’t exist, the disgraceful state of the media is a real problem for democracy, the deep sense of privilege is merely a red-flag to the state of the whole miserable project. As the level of macho-dysfunctionality oozing out of the Covid Inquiry testifies, we are ruled by sociopathic halfwits. But as Dominic Cummings enjoyed another 15 minutes of fame spewing expletives like a jilted Malcolm Tucker, we see the landscape being sculpted by the like of Thiel and Musk. Andy Becket writes of the Thiel Oxford lecture:
“More confusingly still, he described himself as on “the centre-right”. Yet he criticised Sunak – an increasingly aggressive social conservative and lifelong free-marketeer – as too moderate and essentially the same as Keir Starmer. By the lecture’s climax, Thiel was making assertions with which even some on the right might be uncomfortable, including arguing that fascism was “more innocent” than communism.”
The venture capitalist concluded that a possible alternative to the extremes of fascism or communism might be some form of “Christian democracy”.
This era might be analogous to early Thatcherism in which she succeeded in building a new form of authoritarian populism, which encouraged people to operate with not against state power and capitalism. This is what Gramsci called ‘trasformismo‘ – the appropriation of previously hostile or dissident ideas into a ‘new political configuration’ – in new distorted manifestations. The rush for the new strange libertarianism championed by Musk and Thiel and the far-right is a grotesque parody of the actual politics they espouse and we are receiving.
Want to hand over unimaginable power to a handful of unelected individuals? Want to voluntarily hand over all of your data to these individuals to further manipulate and spy on you? Sure we do. Want to unleash unimaginably powerful technologies and make sure that it is concentrated in the hands of these same people? Want to simultaneously destroy the most precious civil and human rights with extraordinary new powers for the police? Of course.