Thursday, 6 December 2018

Old Fears, New Terrain: How Political Contestation is Changing!

This address was delivered at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation at the Old Granary building in Cape Town on the 6th of December 2018. The Citizen Dialogue Centre (CDC), The Citizen Research Centre (CRC) and the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO) held a fundraising event to motivate for a programme to protect the 2019 South African elections – due in May 2019 – from online and social media disruption and interference. The event was kindly hosted by the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation and was opened by Dr Mamphele Ramphele.

We are living through an era of profound change. The democratic standards and ethics of the 20th Century – that were developed in the post-war consensus – are being eroded in service of political expediency and short term gain. The very fabric that constituted the post-war consensus; one that took a long term view on how politics is contested and conducted; is being undermined by the technological innovations – mobile phones, the internet and social media – that promised a new era of strengthened democracy, increased transparency and accountability, and active citizen engagement.

In the hyper-connected world of today, no country or region can fully escape the impact of these changes. It has already proven foolish to avoid dealing with them. The notion that tried and tested traditional methods of mobilizing political support will eventually win out has proven desperately wanting. Change is upon us and we have to evolve with the times. The only question around it; is how we choose to do so. Do we choose to descend to the level of cheap populism and inflammatory rhetoric, or do we want to harness change to help build more cohesive societies? Both options are available to us; the real question is whether we are caught up in short term scrambles for power, or whether we remain focused on what we hope to achieve as societies in the long term.

But first we need to correctly diagnose the changes that we are undergoing, as failure to do so will result in remedies that are bound to fail. So what has changed? Why is it so important to rethink how politics is being contested and to embrace the new terrain of political contestation, so to speak?

The first – and key – change to understand is that the internet, social media and new media have fundamentally altered how political messaging is developed and delivered to the public. Whereas in the 20th Century voters were targeted in broad demographic bands (say, white males between the age of 25 and 35, or white females between the ages of 45 and 55), the internet and social media have enabled political campaigners to target individuals and small groups more precisely with messaging that is customized to their personal preferences, biases and fears. Big data has allowed us to develop a more nuanced understanding of individuals and small groups than ever before. Political propaganda can now be delivered to a person or small group in such a manner that it takes into account what they are most likely to respond to on an emotional or affective level, as well as an intellectual level.

Moreover, mobile phones make us both constantly connected and instantly reachable. We now live in a world that is hyper-connected – on many levels – but especially with respect to information. We are inundated by news feeds, video clips, trivia, listicons, motivations, fear-mongering, moral prescriptions, Machiavellian prescriptions, echo-chambers (e.g. WhatsApp groups), and the like. In this information overload we cannot help but feel lost; there is precious little signal to grasp in the endless noise.

And it may seem counter-intuitive, but this seamlessness is precisely what enables political propagandists to weaponise their messaging so effectively. The proliferation of information and opinion today makes it easier for people who feel disempowered by it to retreat into enclaves or “echo-chambers” as they are now being called. Previously that “echo-chamber” might have been a small community, a neighbourhood or a village – nowadays the echo-chambers are online; they reside in the virtual realm as well as in the real world. We are living in the era that is increasingly characterized by an augmented reality.

Moreover, hyperconnectivity and a high-frequency, constant-flow information stream has been coupled with an instant gratification culture; one where clicks and likes lend more weight to a piece of information than its actual veracity. There is less time for contemplation; the ‘post-literate’ world is characterized by the ability to throw a wide net and take in a vast array of inputs, but with little quality insight; we surf everything but have little depth in anything in particular.

There is also a clear history that has fed these developments. This era is preceded by one where political spin, soundbites and the concerted ‘dumbing down’ of political messaging became the norm and fed the news cycles of media that had become driven by advertising revenue rather than sales.

These are the ingredients that have been cooked up to produce the reality we are experiencing in the early 21st Century.  New online media technologies, coupled with advertising driven revenue models, have yielded a new status quo; where the popularity of something is more important than its veracity and its actual value. Throughout history, we have underestimated the impact that new technology has on the propaganda of its time; this goes all the way back to the printing press, with radio and television serving as more recent innovations in the greater historical scheme of things.

The technology-driven terrain of this era is serving as a basis for new contestations of power; not just the occupy styled protests of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, or more currently the ‘yellow vests’ in France – but between nation states and large multinational/commercial interests who are contesting the global political and economic order.

And how do they achieve this? More recent investigations have shown that it is not just “fake news” that is instrumental in these information warfare styled strategies but sowing discord in the ranks of the enemy – a divide and conquer strategy, so to speak. This is the exertion of soft power through asymmetric information (and psychological) warfare. When unity and cohesion within a group is lost they become more vulnerable and open to manipulation.

We know that state actors are active in this space. For example, the Russian government has invested heavily in creating well staffed capabilities that focus on sowing division in countries that they seek to manipulate. Other actors such as Breitbart news – the news media darling of the ‘alt right’ in North America, who are now making moves into Europe – have also been very successful at this.

But some skeptics still ask, “why South Africa?” Who would seek to manipulate our elections, and why?

In our provincialism we often fail to adequately appreciate our critical role in the world and on the continent in particular.

First, South Africa is of great geo-strategic interest to countries and multinationals that are looking to exploit the next, most significant, emerging class of consumers in the world; a market that is essential for global growth. Let me read you a short quote from the State of the African Cities Report 2014 by UN HABITAT. 

“By 2020, 128 million African households are projected to have transited to “middle class” (see also Box 1.1), boosting consumption and spending potentials; and by 2030 Africa’s highest-performing 18 cities might reach a combined purchasing power of USD 1.3 trillion. Projections over the longer term include growth of the middle class from 355 million people in 2010 (34 per cent of the total population) to 1.1 billion (42 per cent) in 2060, exceeding that of China today.”

South Africa is uniquely positioned to help access these opportunities, particularly because of its stable, reliable tertiary sector capacity (e.g. Finance, Insurance, Real-Estate, Banking), and could very well become the financial capital of Africa; so to speak.  

In addition, South Africa’s resources are of global import and significance. For example, we have the second largest uranium reserves in the world. Any country that has invested heavily in nuclear power offerings (e.g. Russia and France) would naturally have an interest in being able to influence how our uranium resources are administered. Moreover, we have globally significant coal reserves, platinum group metal reserves, rare earth metals, phosphates, and so forth. This is before we even consider the natural resources we possess above the ground, as well as the many other sectors in which we play a key role.

And perhaps most importantly, there is precedent for us to be wary of the use of social media to influence the public political discourse in South Africa. We need only look to the Bell-Pottinger debacle that unfolded towards the end of Jacob Zuma’s second term (they were hired by the Gupta family and Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane). The African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting found that between July 2016 and July 2017 220,000 tweets and hundreds of facebook posts[1] were put out by Bell-Pottinger in a deliberate attempt to manipulate and divide public opinion.

Narratives such as that of “white monopoly capital”, “radical economic transformation” and “land reform” were artificially amplified and – in an environment that was ripe for populist sloganeering and divisive rhetoric – were quickly taken up and became normative. It soon felt like these terms had been around for a long time when in reality they had moved from the fringes of the public political discourse to the centre very quickly. This is precisely the objective of propaganda, and social media and new media have made it easier to deliver messaging more precisely, and amplify it more successfully at the same time; a dangerous combination.

More recently – according to the Digital Forensic Research Lab – during the December 2017 ANC presidential elections a host of automated ‘bots’ numbering “in the low hundreds” were mobilized out of the US to influence it[2]. Although it is doubtful that it actually played a role in swaying the election, it serves as an important warning of what may come next. Indeed, it may have actually been a ‘test run’, to help calibrate their approach.

What this tells us is that South Africa is already on the radar for those who would meddle with our political discourse and electoral processes. It would be deeply ignorant to imagine that we can wish these threats away; or simply hope that they will not prove significant.  

Further afield, organisations such as Cambridge Analytica have been deeply involved in sowing discord and spreading dangerous, polarizing rhetoric in elections at home, as well as around the world; they were involved in Brexit, the 2016 US elections, the most recent Kenyan elections, and many others around the world. Cambridge Analytica even leveraged its network of retired intelligence operatives to support political campaigns and safeguard the interests of nefarious individuals and leaders, and were prepared to use devious, old traditional means as well.

Recently, reports of heavily staffed Russian government funded operations to leverage social media to influence the 2016 US elections have surfaced. While the Russian government denies it, it is clear that Russia has taken the gap provided by both Brexit and Trump to exert soft power and position itself more prominently in the global political order.

And you can be sure that China is already well equipped in this arena as well, as they already possess extensive capabilities to monitor online conversations in China.

There are also internal threats to consider.

Just last month a UNISA employee was exposed – along with his sister – of creating several fake news websites and distributing them via a series of Facebook pages. Apparently, the pair had been operating similar websites from at least early 2016.

We have also seen a dramatic increase in Trump-styled disinformation campaigns being carried out by political actors in South Africa. The EFF, in particular, have made use of twitter to make accusations against other politicians, their families and businesspeople; a few facts are often strung together to arrive at completely spurious conclusions. But they are not alone in their ‘shoot from the hip’ tactics; irresponsible rhetoric and spin has come to characterize our political realm.

And to be sure, South Africa is currently fertile territory for divisive rhetoric and misinformation campaigns. The reasons are simple. Even though South Africans now enjoy democratic freedom, South Africa endures that highest inequality in the world. And that inequality is even higher in our major cities. When viewed through a historical lens, this inequality is easily construed as a continuation of Apartheid era forms of exclusion. Rampant inequality, historical racial cleavages and the slow pace of land reform are but a handful of the broader issues that can and are being used to manipulate the political sphere in South Africa.

There is also massive frustration among ordinary South Africans with the political establishment; they are largely viewed as elites who are out of touch with the everyday realities that ordinary people face.  Among poor and marginal communities, major ‘service delivery’ protests have risen exponentially over the past decade or so; it is now convention to take to the streets and make localities ungovernable in order to draw government’s attention to the pressing issues that these communities endure. We are a society that is balanced on a knife edge; we are acutely aware that our current condition is not sustainable. This renders our body politic extremely vulnerable to populist actors – who may occupy the fringes at first – but can quickly move to the centre if tipping points are breached.

And to be sure; the internet and social media are the key avenues through which they can amplify their public voice and tip the scales one way or another. It is cheap, easy to use, and the damage it wreaks is difficult to undo once it has been done. Its fundamental asymmetry makes it attractive to those who are currently outliers or outriders, but aspire to greater power.

So to the point of why we are gathered here today; what can we do about it?

Well firstly, we need to understand that this problem cannot be ‘regulated away’. Regulations simply cannot keep up with the rapid changes occurring in the technologies and innovations that govern this space.

What we need to do is to begin building the capabilities that can actively engage and counter fake news and polarizing and incendiary rhetoric online. We need dedicated organizations that are well staffed, and possess the right intellectual capital, as well as the software and hardware they need to be effective. We also need to test and establish the methodologies that have been developed to counter online interference.

We need to become better at countering online interference through two key avenues; (1) through directly crippling the online ‘nodes’ through which messaging is artificially amplified, and (2) drawing on the self-organising capability of the internet to boost engagement by reasonable, level-headed people and key influencers who can help dampen out the loud and irresponsible actions of online ‘trolls’.

And importantly, we need to make sure that we share all the information about how to set up these capabilities and make them effective; so that other groups across the world can set up similar capabilities in their local contexts. Over time, a broad network of such organizations will become a ‘learning network’; sharing case studies, methods, techniques and the like to improve each other’s success rates at countering interference.

To reiterate, the strategy for dealing with online interference will not be successful if a purely regulatory stance is adopted. We need to be embedded within the new terrain and evolve with it. This asymmetric threat can be fought asymmetrically; and this is good news for us, as we can leverage knowledge based resources and bring them to bear on this nascent threat. And to be sure, as it is with any threat, measures and countermeasures will co-evolve in response to each other into perpetuity. We need active capabilities to be effective in our efforts to safeguard social cohesion and democratic politics. Our electoral integrity will increasingly be defined by our ability to be effective – in real time – in this new terrain of political contestation.

Having heard this talk, you may feel that it would be easy to convince those who can help establish such a capability to throw their support behind it. But we are faced with a situation where people are so overwhelmed by the multiple ‘threats’ they are constantly bombarded with, that they have become somewhat numbed, unable to clearly assess the threat before them.

We know that the internet, social media and mobile phones are changing society, but we are in deep denial about the extent to which its reach has rapidly grown. This is a very real threat. And as it is with elections; once they are over and the winners and losers have been announced, it is extremely difficult to roll back. There are no second chances, and the organizations who have come before you here today are not merely interested in studying how these political disasters occur retrospectively. Our central objective is to insert ourselves into this space in real-time so that we can play a meaningful role in actively protecting our democracy.

After many years of sacrifice, struggle and strife we emerged with a hard won democracy; and we have seen – in recent years – what it takes to safeguard it. What we must recognize, at this crucial point in history, is that the terrain of contestation has changed, and we must adapt with it, or face the consequences of lagging behind it.

Thank you!

Note: The author and speaker of this piece is the Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO).


Sunday, 11 November 2018

Leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Organisations, Techno-Mirages & Ethics in the Posthuman Era

Change is inevitable. Yet if we are to believe that a new era is dawning we must, and this is an obligation, seek to understand what is fundamental about the changes unfolding around us that will bring about a transformative transition, that is; a transition where things are made anew.

We are told that we are entering into a ‘post’ era. That new generations will be ‘post-literate’; transcending the need to read and write – perhaps even ‘post-language’ where communication is mediated by technologies directly from one mind to another without the need for words. That we are headed towards a ‘postcapitalist’ political economy: one where technological innovation will force 20th Century capitalism to out-evolve itself. That we will live in a ‘post-labour’, ‘post-work’ world; one that could either be techno-utopian or techno-dystopian, depending on who you ask. That we will live in a ‘post-gendered’, ‘post hetero-normative world’; where identity will be more flexible and difference and otherness will enjoy broader social acceptance. That borders and boundaries will become more fluid. And that there is perhaps a prospect of a ‘post-politics’ emerging that will upend and replace the political dichotomies of the 20th Century.

But perhaps more profoundly, that we will become a ‘posthuman’ society, where the anthropocentric view of humans as the centre of the world will be replaced by a recognition of humans as part of a broader ecology of interactions with non-human species enjoying an equal status; their undeniable interconnectedness, interdependence and inter-reliance taking precedence over human exceptionalism. A society where we increasingly inhabit the planetary significance of our daily choices, one that will increasingly be mediated by technologies that reside inside and outside of our bodies, and perhaps, even our minds.

There is a thread running through all these ‘post’ discourses; and that thread has come to be known by the often contested term; the fourth industrial revolution or 4IR. The posthuman “other” characterizes the fourth industrial revolution. Whether it is artificial intelligence or automation; the cyborg or human-machine augmentation; mutation or hybridization at the genetic level; the increasing dominance of augmented reality as central to human socio-economic interaction, or whether it is the identity fluidity that emerges from some or a combination of these factors; the posthuman society is characterized by the phenomenon of merging with the other. However, agonistic or not the reaction to this is, it is the posthuman position that merging and interdependence will increasingly characterize the condition of the other, whether we speak of the other of science fiction, or of histories that have hitherto been denied.

Yet what is this posthuman society of the other? And can it really decouple from its past? Clearly, it cannot do so neatly. It will likely be a fraught and agonistic process; a process that is more likely to become stuck in an oscillation between the realities of its inheritance and the mirages it aspires to actualizing. It is clear – to me at least – that there is great danger in lapsing into a blinkered technology-centric vision of the fourth industrial revolution. Not only does it present its aspirations as inevitable outcomes; it presents transformative transition as linear, when it is anything but linear. Rather it is characterized by evolutionary change, which is distinctly non-linear, metastable and unpredictable. What future does this posthuman society then auger? And how can we grapple with it?

Posthumanism is a post-dualistic theory: it is a theory that favours neither this nor that binary option for categorizing phenomena; it departs from the position that is always both. In this; posthumanism and the posthuman society, acknowledges the complexity of the transition that is unfolding. And that complexity is ultimately (well, currently) a human one to wrestle with, as it necessitates grappling with the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution and what it will mean for a posthuman society. For ethics, and the principles that inform ethics, are central to navigating new futures; they provide the foundation upon which leaders can navigate the turbulent ‘whitewaters’ of change.

When we look at how the fourth industrial revolution is positioned in popular discourse, there is very little serious thought given to ethics, which is key to leadership. The emphasis is on the technological and not the social aspects of organization. Yet it is critical to think through the fourth industrial revolution from the perspective of posthumanism; as it is a philosophical project that is concerned with the ethics of precisely this new future.

Moreover, what are the implications for how society is organized? How will human beings live, love, work, play, endure crises, express themselves, explore their spirituality and materiality, form and break bonds constitute families and communities, vote, engage in the political realm and take political action, and so forth. Indeed, how do we want them to?

Indeed, the question is even greater; how might our values, beliefs and norms evolve or co-evolve with the socio-technological changes of the posthuman era? Will we be able to distinguish signals from the noise? How will being hyper-connected, embedded, immersed in the augmented realities that we are embedded in affect us? At what point do we begin to drown in the noise while synthetic agents gain greater clarity, perhaps ultimately replacing us?

And what kind of ethics – or rather – ethical frameworks do we require to effectively navigate the changes that will unfold, that is; especially those that are emergent, unpredictable?

Clearly, a morality based ethics will suffer in an environment where rapid and unforeseen changes dominate the socio-technological society and its organization. Morality is relative, that is; between human beings, but also over time. Morality based ethics will not be able to cope with the vast changes that are set to unfold. It simply cannot remain constant with respect to temporal change. So where will we derive an ethics for the fourth industrial revolution from?

Will it simply be a survivalist ‘non-ethics’ that informs leaders and leaderships, a spiral to the bottom where power and the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is replaced by the ‘tragedy of the private’? Where accumulation by a few intensifies and inequality grows?

Where democratic integrity is sacrificed in the desperate scramble for political/raw power; where nothing else matters but ‘winning’. Where the performative is amplified, elevated above all else in the hyper-linked, high frequency update information era?

If we are to purposively construct the posthuman society, or at least guide it into existence; we will have to ‘dig deep’, so to speak. We will need to identify the principles that we can agree on instead. So as things change over time we need to be able to rely on principles that are; (firstly) temporally robust and (secondly) that we can renegotiate as required. These principles will have to be post-dualistic in nature; they will need to be both resilient yet adaptive at the same time. This is what a post-dualistic framework for deriving ethics requires.

What jarring complexity is this? Where neither good nor bad, virtue nor evil; dictates the transformation that unfolds. That it is always both, a duality that persists and pervades regardless of the professed ethics of an era.  We will get to this later.

First, let us ground this discussion in a set of thoughts about the organization of the future:

What will the organization of the future look like? How will it be designed? What will its societal role be? What kind of ‘citizen’ or ‘legal person’ will the organization of the future be? How sustainable will it be, not just in terms of its profit margins, but in terms of how it uses resources and impacts the environment? Most of all, what do we want it to be? These questions cannot escape that when we tackle the future there is always a strong normative element to it; it is not just about what will emerge, but what we want the future to be. Although we cannot entirely control what emerges, we have to strive to actualize the future we want from what ultimately unfolds in reality. We are grappling, so to speak, with the process of becoming.

What can we do to position leadership for a future that is currently thought of in binary terms; of an imminent techno-utopia or techno-dystopia? Well, first and foremost, we have to acknowledge that what emerges from the fourth industrial revolution will largely be undecideable – note; not neutral – but undecideable. Every innovation will likely be a coin with two sides; a duality of possibilities lying latent within it. How it meets society and co-evolves with it, and what that reflexivity reproduces, cannot be easily discerned. We have no crystal balls to rely on. Well at least I don’t, and my conviction is that only snake oil salesman pretend to know!

My feeling is that this duality between techno-utopian and techno-dystopian utility, enabled by the full range of possibilities that each innovation hosts, will ultimately emerge as complex phenomena; those that do not easily fit into this box or that, or this binary classification or that. Rather, each innovation will seed, grow and reproduce in the territories that provide them with a clear need, and a clear means through which the innovation can be adapted to meet that need. And their value and sustainability will in turn be a result of how well they help sustain the boundaries of those territories, and perhaps extend them. That is; in how well it helps reproduce and entrench the territory that it seeds in.

And as the new technological, social, economic, cultural, environmental, institutional and organizational factors emerge, combine, disperse and recombine; new forms will be born in each of these domains. Natality will likely characterize the state of things.

So, in this new era, how will organizations be designed? How will they function?

1.      They will need to enhance their adaptive and creative capacity.
a.      Diversity, inclusion and valuing codependence over individualism is necessary for this.
b.      So is a transdisciplinary skills base that can facilitate cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives.
2.      They may need to be able to expand and contract relatively quickly in order to survive.
a.      Perhaps they will have to think more carefully about how they distribute their functions, processes and controls – as well as their assets and resources – in order to be able to do so.
b.      Might that also be the case for the skills, capabilities and networks that underlie their core competences?
c.       Linked to this, might they be increasingly decentralized? Where networks of organizations replace one large organization (“web-like, scattered and polycentred” as Rosi Braidotti – the eminent scholar of posthumanism, puts it).
3.      They may need to build in redundancies into their organizational design, so that they can quickly access multiple fall-back configurations in order to adapt.
a.      This has implications for organizational design that prioritizes efficiency measures over adaptability. Efficiency does not equal resilience.
b.      They will also likely increasingly need to prioritise sub-optimisation over efficiency: Simply optimizing every contributing part of an organization will not be enough; indeed, in complexity theory the sub-optimisation principle states that when the parts of a system are optimized the whole functions sub-optimally and vice-versa. This may seem counterintuitive but it is true of all natural systems, including our bodies; if your body’s parts were all functioning optimally now you would be dead within minutes.
4.      Hierarchy versus heterarchy: While hierarchies are important, they may need to become more fluid, that is; more heterarchical, where agents, functions, controls and processes rise to authority depending on how the context evolves, that is, a more complex, adaptive hierarchy.

Moreover, the question of how organizations will look and function is tied up with the questions of how societies will be organized, and how governments – even democracies – will function. But we do not have the time to go into that here.

On the question of what principles should inform the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution and the posthuman era, I alone cannot prescribe them. Perhaps a better question to ask is,

“What should guide these principles?”

Let me suggest some practical guidelines:

·         First; that we live in a world with finite resources. That doing more with less resources will prove critical to how well we navigate the prospect of resource scarcity and that the kind of societies and world we will live in will depend on it. Whether we live in a world that is characterized by inequality and scarcity, or whether we live in a world of abundance and equitable distribution will depend on it.
·         Second; that we are both a part of, and depend on our life-supporting ecosystems. We are indisputably part of the natural systems on which we depend for our survival. And in the anthropocene humankind is driving changes in theses natural systems that are unprecedented. We are not only changing the global climate, we are also severely degrading global ecosystems. 18 years ago the millennium ecosystem assessment found that 12 out of 24 of the global life-supporting ecosystems were severely degraded.  
·         Third; that we should endeavour, as far as possible, to retain human connection. That communities and societies cannot thrive when people are individuated and atomized, where social bonds are mediated through superficial ties characterized by momentary, transient and ephemeral interactions. We need to be able to cultivate deep bonds that allow us to feel rooted.
·         Fourth; that politics cannot function if people are relegated to the private realm and live lives that are devoid of any engagement in the public realm.
·         Fifth; that complex change is irreversible; it cannot be rolled back. We will have to build the adaptive capacity to be able to cope with changes that we cannot control, for there will likely be many. The paradigm of control will need to be replaced by one of adaptability. This adaptability requires building both adaptive capacity and creative capacity; embracing a more inclusive and dynamic process for contestation and cooperation from which ethical positions can emerge.
·         Sixth; that we have long blurred the lines between our biological bodies and technologies, and that while the fourth industrial revolution promises to leapfrog the synthesis between human beings and technologies it is not a new phenomenon. That we have precedents that we can draw on in this respect; it is not a break with history but an inevitable consequence of it.  
·         Seventh; that the virtual realm is already a full part of our reality; that reality is – and perhaps has always been – augmented by the technologies through which we communicate. That all our societal systems – political, educational, socio-cultural, economic, recreational and so forth will evolve with it. The question is not if, but how we evolve with it, and on what terms.
·         Eighth; that undecideability will characterize much of the decision-making about how to navigate change and the unknown; that decisions will have to be made that are deeply fraught and fundamentally irresolvable. The notion of what is “just” will increasingly be fraught with contestation.
·         Ninth; that potential changes in the nature of work need to be accommodated in such a manner that systemic changes are embraced that can help absorb and convert these changes so that meaningful and purpose-filled lives are actualized.
·         Tenth; that the ethics of leadership will need to broaden, become more inclusive and cater for both human and non-human species and systems, as well as their interdependencies.
·         There are perhaps more, but we need to move on …

So how we navigate between the false dichotomies ascribed by utopian and dystopian techno-mirages will ultimately depend on what kind of leadership is provided through the myriad and multi-leveled transitions that society will likely undergo. And that in turn will require an ethics – of leadership – that is located in a framework of principles that we can generally agree on; principles that speak to the kind of society we would like to live in, yet can still evolve. Principles that can be used to make decisions that guide the trajectory in one way or another, towards a suitable set of outcomes; given the balance of probabilities. That is, a set of principles that also accommodates what is evolutionary about the ‘techno-society’ that is set to unfold with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution. A set of principles that we must agree to renegotiate along the way without losing what we value of what we are. And a leadership ethics that can accommodate change, and allows for its own renegotiation, on strict and reliable – yet inescapably subjective – terms.

From an academic perspective, the notion of a non-universalizable ethics stands in confrontation to the roots of the philosophy of ethics that characterizes the Western Academy. Rather, as Rosi Braidotti puts it:

“… it [i.e. the Western Academy] perpetuates the institutionalized habit of thought – reactive and sedentary – of erecting philosophy to the role of a master theory. The image of the philosopher as the legislator of knowledge and the judge of truth – a model rooted in the Kantian school – is the exact opposite of what posthuman critical theory is arguing for; post-identitarian, non-unitary and transversal subjectivity based on relations with human and non-human others.”
[inserted text]

Rather, she argues for a posthuman ethics that is an ethics of “collectivity and relationality”, one that can contest and transform power. In closing, it is worth reminding ourselves that what is most powerful about this view, is that we will all be part of constructing the ethics of the posthuman era; that the ethics of the era will be emergent, and that will require, above all; strong social organization to navigate. Perhaps a posthuman perspective on the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution then ultimately offers us a critical opportunity; an opportunity to reconstitute a meaningful polis from which a more inclusive, dynamic and resilient society can emerge.

Thank you!

***Note: This is a transcript of an address delivered to the Alumni Reunion of the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town at the Radisson Red Hotel on 20th October 2018.

Capitalism’s Revolutionary!

There are many different views on the Trump phenomenon. From classic twentieth century racist in denial, to bold harbinger of a new ‘tell it like it is’ politics; what is undeniable about Donald Trump is that his sheer audacity to upset all things sacred has proved polarizing, even terrifying to some. There are many diverse perspectives and opinions on the new US president and the leadership phenomenon he embodies. Yet of the many lenses through which Donald Trump is viewed and analysed, precious little attention has been drawn to what is revolutionary about his often ill-advised leadership.

It may at first appear strange to think of Donald Trump as a revolutionary. Indeed, to most people, the notion of revolutionaries conjures up imagery of left-wing ideologues. Cutout screen prints of Lenin and Che Guevara pop into one’s mind. It is understandably difficult to imagine a right wing conservative as revolutionary.

Yet if we reflect on Donald Trump’s rise to power objectively; it fits the narrative of revolutionary change on many levels. First, Trump’s leadership represents a fundamental challenge to the existing US political establishment; both the Washington political establishment, as well as the conservative establishment of the Republican Party. Second, Trump was always regarded as a marginal figure, an outlier and a sideshow to US politics; someone who ran for president to increase his own ratings rather than to actually get the job. Even he admitted so, and was veritably surprised when he eventually won the US elections. Yet this is typically how revolutionary change occurs; what is regarded as an outlier – an aberration in the system rather than a norm – moves to the centre and induces a shift that ‘changes everything’. 

While outliers may languish in relative obscurity for a long time, when the right conditions emerge for them to rise to authority they are quickly elevated and become symbolic enactments of the trends that had until then only persisted in the undercurrents. These conditions usually have a traceable but entangled history that explains its emergence retrospectively, but cannot be discerned while it is brewing.  And indeed, the conditions for the rise of Donald Trump were in the making long before his ascendancy to the presidency. A lot has been brewing in 21st Century America.

The contestation around Barack Obama’s bid for presidency invoked a veritable backlash from the republicans. The discord within the party went so deep that it was hijacked by the Tea Party, which propelled a hopelessly inadequate candidate – Sarah Palin – into the spotlight. As right wing conservatism hijacked establishment conservative politics, the political climate began to change. Brash, confrontational and simplistic politics began to take centre-stage and establishment conservative leaders – who originally reacted with some concern – quickly came to understand that this new strategy was working for their party, even if it went against their sensibilities.

The frustration with establishment politics, liberal centrism and emphasis on human rights for marginal groups  (such as LGBTQ people, Muslims and immigrants) – some of which fall far outside of the moral universe of religious conservatives in particular – was real and palpable; and moderate, establishment conservatives bent with the winds and changed their tune accordingly. Loud ‘take no prisoners’ styled soap-boxing began to masquerade as the ‘truth that everyone knows but is afraid to speak’. In this environment political correctness became more and more vilified as unfair shackles that were unfairly imposed on the conservative right; ‘robbing’ them of their fundamental right to free speech.

In this new ‘facts don’t matter’ political discourse, projecting strength and conviction in one’s own beliefs became paramount. Strongman and strongwoman leadership styles captured the public imagination and the more of a “maverick” they were the better. Globalisation’s discontents on the right – traditionalists and religious conservatives who felt they had yielded too much control over how society was evolving – were ecstatic that the “liberal establishment” were getting a long overdue shellacking!

When Obama won in 2008 conservative rebellion went into overdrive. Television adverts aired proclaiming “a thousand years of darkness”, delivered in a somber, foreboding tone by 80’s action hero Chuck Norris. Other conservative social media and Fox News styled media outlets joined the chorus of thinly veiled fear mongering that the ‘anti-Christ’ had emerged and usurped the reins of their beloved America. Less severe versions called Obama a Muslim, a Kenyan, definitely not an American, and Donald Trump was front and centre of the ‘how-low-can-you-go’ campaign that contested Obama’s American citizenship. Reality television had blown Donald Trump’s public profile up to gargantuan proportions; while at the same time the status of celebrity elites was being conflated with that of political elites. Celebrities and politicians were now equivalents; the new monarchy of global capitalisms ‘end of history’. All that mattered was being famous; it no longer mattered what one was famous for, as long as your television ratings were high.

In this milieu a new political terrain was being established; one where a celebrity populist like Donald Trump could ride the wave of a perfect storm; one that would build and wreak the damage of a storm surge upon America’s shores. Whereas anti-globalists were until then – rightly – thought of as left-wingers thumbing their noses and raising their fists at unbridled global capitalism, structural adjustment, debt-fueled growth, environmental destruction and its ill effects across the world, globalization’s new conservative discontents were undergoing a revolution from within. While invoking the imagery of Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Tatcher’s conservative ‘strength’ in this new revolution, they were in reality – and ironically – rebelling against the very foundation of global capitalism that Reaganite and Thatcherite policies had seeded.

And the most prominent spokespeople of this new revolution took the form of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Steve Bannon and last, but not least, Donald Trump. Yet it is Trump who has proven to be the most prolific and powerful of the lot; as it is within his power to effect changes that the entire world will reverberate to. As the most powerful leader in the world the reach of his decision-making is truly vast and extensive. His ambit of change goes far beyond mere puffery, way beyond all this ‘trivial’ Brexit nonsense; his agenda is one that will wreak havoc from near to far. Everyone will know his name!

Yet capitalism’s revolutionary is quick to point out that all he merely wants is to “make America great again!”, that his primary concern – over and above anything else – is America. He even went so far as to proclaim himself a “nationalist” in a controversial move that saw him draw criticism from both democrats and republicans alike. Many interpreted it as a deliberate effort to signal the white nationalists within his core support base; a veiled attempt to encourage them to get out and vote in the midterm elections.

And as has become customary with Trump, he dug his heels in, just recently restating his defense. “You have nationalists, you have globalists!” he proclaimed, in what at first seemed like a bizarre pivot that was intended to deflect attention away from his all-too-common flirtations with white nationalists and their sympathizers. On closer inspection, however, it is the perfect lens through which Trump’s political ideology can be understood. Capitalisms revolutionary is in reality a national capitalist.

National capitalism a la Trump is not a new ideology, even though it has re-emerged in a new era. It is a throwback to the colonial era; when elite-ruled countries were run like armed business enterprises that sailed the high global seas looking for quarry, while fortifying their own territories against all and sundry who would attempt to do the same to them. They had no real allies or enemies, only mutual interests that brought transient alliances, broken as quickly as they were secured. National capitalism a la Trump is nothing more or less than a revival of the political philosophy that led to the privateers of old. Here, the free market ideology of Reagan and Thatcher is bounded; less taxation, less restrictions on businesses and corporates within national boundaries, while outside of the national boundaries the free market ideology is spurned, and is instead replaced by a dog-eat-dog vision of the world, where all that counts is who supports you. There are no friends, there are no enemies; only alignments of purpose. Regionalism be damned!

And as Trump himself emphasizes, national capitalism in this era is profoundly anti-globalisation in many ways. First, it replaces outsourcing with in-sourcing; in a bid to boost local employment. Second, it is xenophobic and fanatical about retaining closed borders, again; in a bid to protect local employment from foreign ‘invaders’.  Third, its foreign policy is protectionist; it shields national economies from foreign trade. Countries are not joined by mutual interest, but rather by mutual favours. Fourth, its foreign policy is anti-diplomatic; it exerts raw power, manipulates aggressively – often invoking intimidation and threat – and embarks upon proxy wars (e.g. trade wars) to exert its dominance; moreover  allies are not truly allies if they do not pay up for the benefit of your defense. Fifth, foreign policy is framed exclusively in terms of national interest; global interests take a back seat and are denigrated as the prerogative of those who would want the liberal agenda to spread across the world.

Yet, to what end can a political ideology based on anti-globalisation alone extend itself? There are far too many of us on the planet not to be fundamentally interdependent; far too many economic, social and environmental linkages to live in a bilaterally determined world. Cooperation is necessary. Without doubt there are many problems with global capitalism in its present form, but they have only become a concern to the US now that it is having a negative effect on them. As long as they were ‘winning’ everything was okay. But with China and Russia making inroads on the global political economy, a new world order is threatening to take hold. In a world of debt, China’s savings are the main source of its power (Chinese savings constituted 46% of GDP in 2017 and 25% of the world’s gross national savings). This is true even without considering its highly skilled workforce, huge domestic market, ability to act at scale, large population and unparalleled historical legacy of diplomacy. The global order, fueled by unbridled free market global capitalism, is now considered a threat to America. And so Trump and his followers believe that it must be fought against, and every effort must be made to rein it in; yet only for as long as it threatens America. When that changes, Trump’s political ideology will likely be adapted to embrace open global markets again, but only as long as America is ‘winning’. And to be sure, Trump is not above rigging the game, as long as it brings power to his cause (and himself). For him, the ends justify the means. It’s national capitalism or bust!

Trump’s leadership style is well suited to this kind of philosophy. He presents himself as a strongman who has the ‘guts’ to take on existing systems and the stamina to defeat them. All he has to do is draw them into his fight, and he will eventually win. He is also patrimonial, extending favours and withholding rents to manipulate allies and foes alike. He is also nepotistic, and is quite unashamed of being so; indeed he conducts himself as a modern day monarch of sorts, keeping the business of ruling within the family. He is also unashamedly bombastic, taking every opportunity to put his foes on the back foot by reminding them of how much better he is than them, that is; at everything, it would seem.  He is also iconoclastic; unafraid to shake up age-old institutions and replace them with his own (often half-baked) ideas about how things should be. He is performative; invoking high drama and spectacle in service of his agenda. He is duplicitous; contradicting himself regularly, often within hours of his last statement; he is insincere when appeasing and sincere when attacking. He also treasures loyalty to himself, while using and dispensing of people as though they were expendable. He is imperious and hierarchical; he is the primal larger-than-life alpha-male to whom all and sundry is secondary.

Trump’s world is one where spin masquerades as analysis. He is a specialist in this arena; he can easily spot the ‘spin as reality television’ strategy that the traditional media has so unthinkingly embraced. So his contempt for the press is borne from an understanding of their methods; that they are no different from the profit-driven survivalist models that reality television itself depends on. Moreover, the mythology around Trump is the “art of the deal”, which grants him an upper hand over the press; because his persona is constructed to solicit ‘support without understanding’. You don’t need to understand him; you just need to trust him. The press, on the other hand; are the ‘enemy of the good’ who simply can’t be trusted. Their hypocrisy is evident to him; and it makes him scornful of them. In his understanding of the press; they are simply running sensationalist news stories because it helps them make the profits they need to survive in the cut-throat world of advertising-driven media where click-bait rules. He sees through them because he knows the game; in fact, he can play it better than they can.

And to many Americans he is exactly what is needed to protect their interests. America’s ‘obsession’ (as they see it) with its global role has come at a great cost to those at home. In a peculiarly sanctimonious neocolonial twist; they believe that they have become the victims of their own ‘good will’ towards the world. Championing freedom and democracy across the world has ‘bled’ them dry of resources, and these resources could be better spent on the American people themselves. This simplistic, revisionist interpretation of the US’s global hegemony has proven to be an effective rallying cry for those who feel marginalized and forgotten, even irrelevant.

Yet, in what might otherwise have been a little covered event, the recent death of a US soldier in Afghanistan during the midterm elections shone a spotlight on how far the US had drifted from its post-WWII, cold-war foreign policy rhetoric of being driven by a global humanitarian cause; something that the average American believed in, and which in part constituted American identity. Major Brent Taylor, 39 years old, a former mayor of the town of Ogden, Utah, and a member of the national guard; voluntarily went on another tour of Aghanistan because he believed something different. According to his family he loved the people of Afghanistan, and believed so strongly in the “cause of freedom” that he set aside his personal interests (he is survived by his wife and seven children, the youngest of whom is 11 months old) and obeyed a greater call to duty. In his words, “the value of freedom is immeasurable”, and his last Facebook post was one advising Americans to use the freedom they had and to go out and vote. “Service is really what leadership is about” he stated, a view that would lead to him sacrificing his life in the real belief that the cause of freedom was one that extended to all human beings, irrespective of their nationality, religion, creed, or otherwise.

The reason that his death, occurring so near to the midterm elections, struck a deep chord within Americans; is that it echoed a long-held sentiment upon which the greater mythology of America’s global mission rests. Freedom! That has always been the US’s characterization of its struggle for global hegemony; that it is for the good of the world. That it’s mission is to bring American styled democratic freedom to the world. That is why Americans regard America as the “greatest country in the world”; it is it’s enduring symbolic power as a protector of freedom and liberty.

Trump has thrown all of that out of the window. He couldn’t care less about the grand ideology of freedom. Freedom, to Donald Trump, is the freedom to get rich. The only freedoms he is concerned with and vigorously defends; are that of the national market, and the freedom of elites from taxation. He is entirely unconcerned with the project for global human freedoms. It is not paramount in his value system. His value system is simply about winning. If you are a winner, then you deserve to be free. If not, well tough luck! Losers must endure their lot. Survival of the ‘fittest’ is central in his conception of the world. And the ‘fittest’ are those with power! Irrespective of whether they are truly the ‘fittest’ or not, as long as they possess power, then they deserve their place in the world.

It is important to reflect on what history tells us about times when a global political ideology was turned inward and re-positioned as a nationalist project. The most prominent example is that of the Nazi’s (i.e. national socialists) and Adolf Hitler. They put national interests and national exceptionalism front and centre of their politics; mobilizing support on the basis of fear, anger and a superiority complex; an outrage at having lost their status in the world and a grim determination to reclaim their ‘rightful’ place in the global hierarchy. Their central philosophy was also one of “winning”, that is, the survival of the ‘fittest’. In this worldview, the weak suffer what they must.

A primal game of dominance emerges from this brand of politics. It is, in its essence; anti-freedom, anti-social, anti-equality; even anti-political! It does not even bother to be Machiavellian, where real power motivations remain hidden or unacknowledged. Instead, open, brash and unconstrained – even unhinged – performances and spectacles dominate the public sphere. These unravel loosely; the way a mob does, unpredictable, never far from a great act of volatility. This kind of leadership easily breeds a state that can turn against its own people and presents a danger to the world. It is an uncontrolled revolution; one that proceeds by random-walk rather than a clear plan.

There are those that will balk at such comparisons, relegating them to the realm of hyperbole and paranoia, but it is worth remembering how quickly and easily outlier political ideologies can escalate into existential threats for those who do not fall within its ideological echo-chamber. This is true whether the ideology lies to the left or the right. History has shown us that much. There are too many examples to account for here, but there are clear signs that precede the emergence of such an existential threat.

It may be surprising to cast Trump as a revolutionary, but that is indeed what he is. He just does not fit comfortably into the historical stereotypes associated with revolutionaries. He is a revolutionary of another kind; one that represents; not the oppressed and exploited, but those whom liberal centrism threatened to render irrelevant (as Noah Yuval-Hariri puts it). His revolution is as much that of his constituency’s, that is; the struggle against irrelevance. For four decades they have stood by as the world moved on without them, as their worlds have grown smaller, as their normativity and primacy has receded, and they are deeply aggrieved at their displacement. This is not restricted to religious and traditionalist conservatives in the US; it is a sentiment shared by many across the globe who have lived traditional and religious existences and who feel that the globalization of liberal Western sub-cultures threatens the fabric of their societies and communities.

Whether it is the Taliban, or the religious right wing conservatives in the US, or traditionalist European, African or Asian cultures; globalization has presented them with deep, existential challenges of their own. It is no surprise that they would resist it and retreat further into their narrow worldviews, as they feel the threat of erosion of their historical foundations. And to be sure, it is mainly patriarchal systems that have come under threat, so it is no surprise that men, in particular, are reacting to these changes in the manner they have. It is also no surprise that they would invoke God and their ‘way of life’ in their protests against a changing world.

Globalisation's discontents, as it turns out, are not just a bunch of old left-heads who are high on Marxist rhetoric and revolutionary fervor. Rather, they constitute huge swathes of the global population who have not kept pace with either the economic or socio-cultural changes of this era. And they are elevating their own revolutionaries to power in rapid succession. Whether it is Europe, Eastern Europe, the UK, the US, India, the Philippines, Brazil, or the “country first” rhetoric that has been adopted by African leaders (e.g. South Africa and Kenya); the mood has swung, and those who previously felt powerless in the face of global change have asserted themselves.

Capitalism’s revolutionary, however, has gone much further. He is fast building an ideology out of the anti-globalisation movement; an ideology that takes its cues from the right, and which presents a serious quandary for the left. It may well result in a shake-up that leaves both the left and the right barely resembling their origins. And its nationalist emphasis may well result in a breakdown of global cooperation mechanisms and a new, more defensive world where each country is left to fend for itself. Ultimately, capitalism's revolutionary might be the prophet of the Kali Yuga; the age of disintegration. It is clear that he does not intend to raise the level of the debate; he is going to drag it down into the muck where he is comfortable. And if in the end everything descends to the same level that he drags things down to … well … then God help us all!