Post scriptum (2022, week 26) — The attack of the civilization-state, Amazon’s distribution fetishism, and ‘who am I?’ in the context of my work

Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s Post scriptum: The problem with Western universalism; how Amazon branded convenience and normalized monopoly; dehumanization is a feature of gig work, not a bug; 19th-century critiques of technology show how longstanding many current concerns are; how to be excellent; the ‘when-I-finally’ mindset; the loss of Cairo’s wooden houseboats; Aïda Muluneh’s photography series ‘Water Life’; and, finally, Bryan Magee on understanding the world around us.

The attack of the civilization-state

“The myth that China is destined to be assimilated to a Western model of political society is over. From now on, the Chinese would be treading their own ‘Sonderweg’ — special path. Progress with Chinese characteristics,” Bruno Maçāes, who was Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs from 2013 to 2015, writes in The Attack Of The Civilization-State.

“As a civilization-state, China is organized around culture rather than politics. Linked to a civilization, the state has the paramount task of protecting a specific cultural tradition. Its reach encompasses all the regions where that culture is dominant.

The importance of this concept became more obvious to [Maçāes] in India during a conversation with Ram Madhav, the general secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. After a conference in Delhi, he explained: ‘From now on, Asia will rule the world, and that changes everything because in Asia, we have civilizations rather than nations.’”

“The world of the civilization-state is the natural political world. Think of how states are built and how they expand. If a state has developed a successful formula to organize social relations and collective power, it will tend to absorb its neighbors. As it expands and concentrates new forms of wealth, social life will become increasingly complex. Myths will be created, the arts and sciences will prosper. Within its dominion, some possibilities will be opened while others are irredeemably closed. A way of life — a way to see the world and interpret the human condition — will develop. Outside the realm, other states will offer alternatives, but because these alternatives are in turn different ways to think and to live, states are coextensive with civilizations and subordinate to the civilizational form,” Maçāes writes.

According to him, the modern West broke with this mold.

“Western civilization was to be a civilization like no other. Properly speaking, it was not to be a civilization at all but something closer to an operating system. It would not embody a rich tapestry of traditions and customs or pursue a religious doctrine or vision. Its principles were meant to be broad and formal, no more than an abstract framework within which different cultural possibilities could be explored. By being rooted in tolerance and democracy, Western values were not to stand for one particular way of life against another. Tolerance and democracy do not tell you how to live — they establish procedures, according to which those big questions may later be decided.

Since that is the very definition of a civilization-state — to promote and defend one way of life against all alternatives — modern Western political societies had to invent a new political form. The values being defended were meant to become universal, but in practice, the idea of a world-state was never very popular. After all, these universal values were sufficiently universal to leave ample room for differences of implementation. And they were so abstract that many questions were left open, needing to be decided in different ways according to local circumstances.

The concept of a nation-state allowed for some level of diversity, but universal values were still meant to provide the constitutional framework under which each individual nation ruled itself. These universal values stood for the negation of the civilization-state and affirmed the freedom to experiment with different ways of life. But if widely accepted, they could help build global institutions and rules, reducing the likelihood of state conflict. Over the last few decades, a world-state remained a utopia, but a world society seemed to advance.

But then the civilization-state struck back. The problem with Western universalism was twofold. First, Western values seemed to many people living in Asia or Africa as just one alternative among many. The promise that traditional ways of life could be preserved in a liberal society was a fatal conceit. Were Turkey or China or Russia to import the whole set of Western values and rules, their societies would soon become replicas of the West and lose their cultural independence. While this process was seen as the necessary price of becoming modern, cultural assimilation kept its prestige. But lately, doubts have been growing about whether it is really necessary to imitate Western nations in order to acquire all the benefits of modern society. There was a second difficulty: Western values and norms still needed to be interpreted and enforced, and the most powerful nations in the West had always arrogated that task to themselves.”

“The return of the civilization-state poses a delicate problem for the West. Remember that to a great extent, Western societies have sacrificed their specific cultures for the sake of a universal project. One can no longer find the old tapestry of traditions and customs or a vision of the good life in these societies. Their values tell us what we can do but are silent on what we should do. And then there is this question, particularly acute in Europe: Now that we have sacrificed our own cultural traditions to create a universal framework for the whole planet, are we now supposed to be the only ones to adopt it?

Responses vary. There are those in Europe — the populists, to use a catchy term — who want to turn the clock back and recover the wholesome content of a traditional Christian society. But many more believe that the core of a modern, secular European civilization will remain valid even if the rest of the world takes a different path. The European Union is in the process of being reconfigured as a civilization-state, a political entity aggregating all those who live by a specific value system and using political tools to protect European civilization from the attacks of its enemies. The universal framework of rules can be refurbished for a different purpose. Previously, it was meant to accept every world culture under its wings, but now it is the root of a specific way of life: uncommitted, free, detached, aesthetic. Liberated from its commitment to an increasingly abstract and rarefied framework of rules, European liberalism can focus on developing the concrete possibilities contained within itself. This is mainly work for artists, writers and technologists.

Europe may have been convinced that it was building a universal civilization. As it turned out, it was merely building its own. The recognition of this fact will be difficult and painful, but it seems inevitable. I first noticed this transformation when European politicians started to claim that Europe is the best place in the world to live in. Rather than defending universal values such as democracy or human rights, they increasingly defend one way of life against every alternative — a competition with winners and losers. The continent that hoped to move beyond the logic of civilization is very close to converting to it, as is America. When that happens, the triumph of the civilization-state will be complete.”

Also interesting to read is the following article by Nathan Gardels about the German jurist, political theorist and prominent member of the Nazi Party, Carl Schmitt, who, in 1950, wrote The Nomos of the Earth in which he sought to imagine the world order ahead after tracing the history of laws and customs (the meaning of nomos in ancient Greek) that ruled over the ever-expanding domains of past centuries.

How Amazon branded convenience and normalized monopoly

In an interview with the editors of MIT Press, Emily West offers a cautionary tale of bigness in today’s digital economy.

In her book, Buy Now: How Amazon branded convenience and normalized monopoly (an Open Access edition can be accessed here), West “examines Amazon’s consumer-facing services to investigate how the brand grew so quickly and attained a level of ubiquity in our lives while hiding in plain sight. Amazon, [she] argues, is very big in multiple respects, but prefers that we don’t notice.

A goal of West’s book […] is to inform Amazon users about the company’s strategies for market dominance and offer ideas for how, as consumers, we might better understand the nature of a platform giant like Amazon and resist its power. Buy Now is motivated, she says, by the belief that we need to confront the costs of convenience, and reclaim our consumer power, rather than let ourselves be served to distraction.”

Your second chapter focuses on what you call “distribution fetishism,” a branding technique that creates a personalized, affective relationship between consumer and brand, while discouraging attention to the labor and the digital technology and its environmental impacts behind the scenes. In what ways has Amazon used this technique?

[Emily West] “Amazon focuses the attention of the end user on time to delivery rather than how a product is traveling across space in a way that requires a great deal of intensive labor and infrastructure. The concept of ‘distribution fetishism’ is my re-working of Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetishism,’ in which he argued that we misperceive the value, or price of a commodity as being inherent or natural to it, rather than as a function of its raw materials and the labor-time it took to extract them and then produce it. Amazon’s primary business is delivering goods to us, and until recently, people thought very little about the supply chain and warehouse work that it takes to get us goods in ever faster delivery times. Amazon encourages this lack of thought to the actual delivery process in a variety of ways, with the information that it chooses to share (when your item ships, when to expect it, how many ‘stops away’ it is when it’s out for delivery, a notice that your item has been delivered), and the information that it doesn’t (where it shipped from, what fulfillment and delivery centers it went through, which company is doing last-mile delivery).

When I started writing Buy Now about five years ago, I’d say that distribution fetishism was more firmly in place. But with the pandemic everyone became much more aware of the complexity of supply chains and warehouse workers being ‘essential workers’ who were exposed to dangerous conditions in order to keep the delivery of goods (and not always essential ones!) moving. We couldn’t take the one- and two-day shipping for granted anymore. Even before the pandemic, Amazon responded to critiques and concerns about warehouse employment by offering tours at some of its fulfillment centers to the public. While these tours are a gesture towards countering the distribution fetishism that Amazon has cultivated for many years, I found that they don’t actually substantially undermine it. The tours that I took emphasized the role of computing and information technology in Amazon’s distribution system much more than the role of human labor. What makes warehouse work so challenging for workers — the long hours, the repetition, the isolation — is not perceivable from spending a minute at a time observing these roles on a tour.”

Amazon heightened customer satisfaction with its two-day shipping. Now, as you mentioned, it offers one-day shipping — sometimes even an hour. As a result, how are customer expectations impacting small businesses, warehouses, and distributors that simply can’t provide this kind of automatic fulfillment?

[Emily West] “Yes, shipping speed has been Amazon’s ‘killer app’ so to speak. It has set an industry standard for competitors like Walmart and Target, and made meaningful competition by smaller players and new market entrants much less likely. Customer expectations for Amazon’s shipping speeds and associated delivery services (like easy returns and certain guarantees for products) have made selling on Amazon feel far from optional for many small businesses. Amazon is where a huge proportion of shoppers are searching for and purchasing products […]. So while many small sellers would rather avoid selling on Amazon (because Amazon takes such a substantial cut of sales and the costs of marketing on Amazon so people will actually see and buy your product on the site are exorbitant), most feel they cannot avoid it.

In addition, customer expectations for fast and free shipping are arguably making consumers less likely to shop around — ironic, since that is precisely what online shopping is good for. Especially for Prime members, the prospect of slower shipping, or having to pay for shipping on another site, creates a disincentive to look beyond Amazon when shopping online. While we assume that the ability to easily compare prices online would drive prices down, there’s increasing evidence that Amazon’s strategies of platform enclosure have been effective, and that customers are often happy to stay on Amazon’s site, be nudged to a purchase by Amazon’s search algorithm or recommendation or the promise of free and fast shipping with a Prime-eligible product, and never look elsewhere, perhaps where they would have found a better product option or a lower price. This tendency on the part of Prime members in particular to stick with Amazon’s products and services out of ease and convenience is an example of how I argue Amazon is cultivating consumers to be a ‘served self’ in contrast to a ‘choosing subject,’ the latter being a more active, labor-intensive, discerning approach to consumer behavior.”

[C]an you talk about a few of the ways we, the average consumers, can confront these often hidden costs of convenience?

[Emily West] “I wrote this book because I think consumers must be more engaged with the ways that a company like Amazon infiltrates our lives and then uses our delight and convenience as a reason to justify its monopolistic control of markets, its ruthless extraction of productivity from workers, and its poor treatment of many third-party sellers on its platform. Amazon workers, both in the warehouses and its corporate offices, have been the most vocal and impactful in critiquing Amazon’s business practices, but they have the most to lose.

So I think consumers absolutely must be more involved, and have a more direct voice in the conversation about Amazon’s power and whether or how that power should be monitored and perhaps reined in. I think consumers should be more informed about the full extent of Amazon’s business activities, the ways Amazon’s business practices impact the third-party sellers who create so much of the choice and product diversity on the platform, and have more opportunities to contrast how Amazon acts as a business and employer with the everyday experience that the consumer has with Amazon. While many consumers feel dependent on and even cared for by Amazon as a brand, its workers and business partners more typically experience it as a ruthless behemoth.”

‘Who am I?’ in the context of my work

During Eric M. Anicich’s 18-month immersive research at Postmates, he drove for 130 hours, interviewed drivers, attended in-person and virtual company meetings, and reviewed and contributed to driver forums.

“In one sense, my recently published findings are not surprising,” he writes in Dehumanization Is a Feature of Gig Work, Not a Bug. But they “also point to something deeper and perhaps more concerning about the changing nature of work and our relationship to it that transcends app work in the on-demand economy. What I observed and experienced was a system that suppresses workers’ uniqueness, experiences, and future aspirations. It was a system that treated people like lines of code to be deployed instead of humans to be developed. This is problematic because work is not simply the translation of physical and intellectual effort into money. What we do on a daily basis for work is part of our broader life narrative that makes us who we are.”

Many drivers in the on-demand economy, Anicich found, struggled to answer the question Who am I? in the context of my work.

“One driver […] explained, ‘I try to bring my personality, but the app itself doesn’t really offer that…the app sets the precedent to dehumanize…if you don’t try to inject your personality, it just washes it out…I feel like a robot by the end of the day.’ A different driver put it more bluntly: ‘The driver is invisible [to customers]…the driver doesn’t exist…it’s like you’re not really there.’

[…]

This contrasts sharply with the messaging that platforms use to attract drivers: You can ‘move forward without limits’ (GrubHub) as you ‘drive toward what matters’ (Lyft). ‘From aspirations to relationships’ (GrubHub) ‘no matter what your goal is’ (Amazon Flex), you can ‘achieve your…long-term dreams’ (DoorDash) because ‘you move the world’ (Uber). At the end of the day, ‘you’re the boss!’ (Waitr). Yet, these possibilities felt elusive, if not insulting to drivers, many of whom felt ‘stuck in the cycle [of driving]…going nowhere and this is month after month after month,’ as one driver explained to me,” Anicich writes.

When Anicich ended his voluntary immersion in the driver community, he could not shake the feeling that the depersonalization of app workers is a feature, not a bug, of an economic model born of and emboldened by transformations that are underway across the global economy.

“This includes increasingly prevalent work arrangements characterized by weak employer-worker relations (independent contracting), strong reliance on technology (algorithmic management, platform-mediated communication), and social isolation (no coworkers and limited customer interactions). Importantly, the effects of these transformations reach far beyond the type of low-wage gig workers that I studied; freelancers more broadly face similar existential questions and challenges. With the coronation of agile workforces and customer-first philosophies nearly complete, the psychological contract — the unwritten expectations and obligations between workers and organizations — is at risk of being re-written before our eyes. Indeed, the three C’s underlying strong psychological contracts — a career that offers personal growth and upward mobility, a community that fosters social connections and belongingness, and a cause that infuses one’s work with meaning and purpose — are all but absent for independent workers of all stripes,” Anicich notes.

“From this perspective, the 40 million Americans who have rented out their services to technology platforms like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash may be canaries in the coal mine of the new world of work. What they experience today, millions more are likely to experience in some form in the future.”

And for Dutch readers, there’s the excellent Human televison series Bezorgd: de mensen achter je bestelling.

In the margins

“Concerns about the pace of life and all its attendant pathologies are often shot through with the idea that society today has lost something it had before — something ephemeral, but nevertheless fundamental. A belief that at some point, in the not-too-distant past, people felt, behaved, and worked better. Lives were more relaxing, communication less hurried, and society more genial. But history suggests otherwise.

We are only ever able to interpret our lives according to the contexts in which we live. The 19th century felt hurried and pressured for those who experienced it. Many of its technologies were met with enthusiasm, but also with anxiety and stress. This is true for then, for today, and even for some aspects of the 17th century. Take this quote from Samuel Pepys’ diary, written in May 1665. He had just had his pocket watch mended. It could only tell him the hour — it didn’t do minutes or seconds — but nonetheless he could not ‘forbear carrying watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times.’ His addiction was so acute, that he was ‘apt to think with myself, how could I be so long without one.’”

From: Still the Same, by Agnes Arnold–Forster (RealLife Magazine)

“Achieving excellence for the first time is only the beginning. Once a distinctive sound is found, the excellent musician is driven to share it with others. Aristotle draws a distinction between ‘contemplation’ and ‘action.’ When we contemplate, we think about what’s good, and what it means to apply the good to a craft. When we act, we apply these ideas of the good to our craft. In this way, we share the good with others through our craft. Our craft becomes our medium for expressing excellence, our way of bringing our understanding of the good to life in the world around us. Of course, when we act, we act in front of an audience. When we perform a craft, we make something for others to experience. This means that, once we begin acting, other people get a chance to decide for themselves whether they think we’ve really found a new and better way of reaching for the good, of expressing excellence.

Sometimes, other people will like what we’re doing, and sometimes they won’t. Plato thought that most people wouldn’t know what was excellent if it came right up and bopped them on the nose. For him, if everyone likes what you’re doing, that’s a good reason to think you might be doing the wrong thing. We all know people who feel this way about pop music. For these listeners, the fact that pop music is popular is itself an argument against its excellence. Plato understood the good to be very remote from ordinary human experience. For him, the good is the one, the unity of all things.

But we live in bodies, and we tend to spend too much of our time focused on what our bodies need instead of on what’s good for our families, our communities, and the Universe as a whole. The body invites us to separate the world into ‘me’ and ‘not-me.’ We constantly categorise reality, always emphasising differentness and separateness. This prevents us from seeing how everything is connected, how everything is just another aspect of the one. Grasping this oneness requires us to get beyond the perspective that grows out of our bodies, and for Plato that can be achieved only through a lot of philosophical effort. Since most of us don’t spend our time on philosophy, most of us don’t discover this oneness, and that means our human concept of the good is just a pale imitation of true goodness. The music most people believe to be good is just the music they find pleasurable, not the music that helps people discover the reality of oneness. If Plato were around today, he might say that too many pop stars sing about antagonistic relationships with former lovers, a relatable experience but one that reinforces self-other distinctions.

Aristotle thought about it differently. For him, if most people like your music, you’re probably on the right track. Many of us might not have taken the time to discover how to play great music, but we can recognise it when we hear it. Aristotle’s understanding of the good was earthier than Plato’s. For Aristotle, if something is good, it’s just the end at which other things aim. We can therefore discover what’s good by observing nature, by observing what natural processes aim at. For Plato, excellence requires us to get beyond ordinary experience. But for Aristotle, excellence is readily discoverable in the world around us, if we’re willing to slow down and look at it. This is not to say that excellence is whatever the majority of people understand it to be, but if large numbers of people think that something is excellent, then that’s a piece of information about what the Universe is driving at that we must at least take into account.”

From: How to be excellent, by Benjamin Studebaker (Psyche)

“A central feature of the modern experience of time is that we focus too heavily on instrumentalising it — on dwelling exclusively on our future purposes, hurrying through our lives to some point at the end of the day or the week when we can finally relax, or for some further-off moment, like when you finally get on top of your to-do list, or when the kids leave home, or you retire from work. The result is what’s been called the ‘when-I-finally’ mindset: the sense that real fulfilment, or even real life itself, hasn’t quite arrived yet, so that present experience is merely something to get through, en route to something better. The person stuck in such a mindset, wrote John Maynard Keynes, ‘does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward for ever to the end of cat-dom.’

It’s hard to shake the outlook entirely. But getting older helps, because the awareness that time is drawing to a close makes it increasingly untenable to live for the future. At 20, it’s easy to imagine that real life hasn’t properly begun, but at 40, it’s a bit of a stretch, and at 60 it’s plainly absurd. And so it becomes ever easier to face what was true all along: that this is real life. That there’s no impending moment of truth when you’ll finally feel in a better position to do whatever it is you really want to do with your time — and that the only viable moment in which to do it is right now.

This is the point at which any sane person will feel at least a modicum of regret: you grasp the truth that life isn’t a dress rehearsal for something better, but you desperately wish you’d figured that out several decades sooner. The trick is not to try to deny or eradicate the regret, but not to let it stop you seizing the moment, either — because refusing to live fully on the grounds that you ought to have lived more fully in the past is as silly as refusing to live fully on the grounds that you’re still waiting to live fully in the future.

This, I think, is the kernel of truth in the cliched advice about the importance of ‘living in the moment’: not that you should try to meditate yourself into a mystical state of total presence or concentration, but just that to recognise the fact that the past is past, and that soon you won’t have any future left — so you really might as well be here. It’s not so bad. Often enough, it’s wonderful. And in any case, there’s nowhere else to be.”

From: In your own time: how to live for today the philosophical way, by Oliver Burkeman (The Guardian)

“Rowing up to the cheerful turquoise houseboat on the Nile, a fisherman saluted the white-haired woman swaying on its deck. ‘How are you holding up?’ he called to the woman, Ekhlas Helmy, 88, as his wife dragged back the oars. ‘May God bring down the bully!’

This week may be their last sharing that particular stretch of the Nile, a narrow tract in central Cairo that, since the 1800s, has been lined with wooden houseboats — homes that double as living lore. This month, the government suddenly ordered Ms. Helmy’s houseboat and 31 others demolished, saying they were unsafe and unlicensed.

More than half of the 32 structures, connected to mainland Cairo by lush riverbank gardens, have already been destroyed or towed away for scrap, with at least 14 of them disappearing on Tuesday alone. The rest, including Ms. Helmy’s, are slated to go by early July.

With them will fade the remnants of a glittering, fast-disappearing history. Divas hosted debauched salons on them. The Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz wrote a novel on one, and famous films were set on others. On the riverbank, life was peaceful, airy and private, nothing like the dusty, frenzied metropolis whose imagination the floating homes had captured for so long.”

From: Egypt Destroys Nile Houseboats, Washing Away a Living Lore, by Vivian Yee and Nada Rashwan (The New York Times)

Photography by Heba Khamis

Although artist Aïda Muluneh had an itinerant childhood in Europe and America, she was born in Addis Ababa and is an expert in African photography. When charity WaterAid asked her to participate in a campaign highlighting water poverty, it was the women of Afar, northern Ethiopia, that she shot for her series Water Life, now included in Ekow Eshun’s new book of African art and photography, In the Black Fantastic, published to coincide with [an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery].

Muluneh was pleased that WaterAid wanted to use art for advocacy rather than reportage. ‘Our continent has many layers,’ she says. ‘However, we have been at the mercy of the international media that does not show the complexities of our challenges. My approach has been to tell a story from my perspective, not based on cliches often covered by foreign photographers.’”

From: The artist shining a light on water poverty in Ethiopia, by Alice Fisher (The Guardian)

Photography by Aïda Muluneh. All images © WaterAid/Aïda Muluneh.

“Any individual who looks at the world around him and tries to master it with his understanding is all the time having the rug pulled out from under his feet. He has scarcely finished struggling to liberate himself from the inadequacies of an earlier way of looking at things before he finds the inadequacies of the new way being exposed. There is no end to the process.” — Bryan Magee, from Ultimate Questions

Post scriptum will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course.

If you want to know more about my work as an executive coach and leadership facilitator, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings, follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

--

--

Helping people in leadership positions make sense — one conversation at the time

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mark Storm

Mark Storm

1.3K Followers

Helping people in leadership positions make sense — one conversation at the time