Project Native Informant

How Did We Get Here? DIS Speaks to Christopher Glazek on Crisis and Tech

August 2021

The NY Collective Talks Tyrannical New Capital And Rose-Colored Glasses.

The conception of DIS is unquestionably linked to the fallout of the financial crisis and Great Recession. It was in 2009 that we collectively decided to create a magazine (online) but it’s only now, nearly a decade later, that we can view the period following the crisis through the rose colored glasses of Obama Baroque.

Obama Baroque and UBI: The Straight Truvada are part of a trilogy of videos by DIS reflecting on the financial crisis and its cultural, political and economic impact 10 years later. Today, new forms of non-ownership, liberal politics, and chemical enhancement ecstatically and convincingly undergird a world of ever-increasing stratification and decreasing opportunity. As our homes, property, and bodies are offered up as collateral to the tyranny of financialization, it’s necessary to ask, “how did we get here?”

Joining DIS in conversation is writer, Christopher Glazek, who wrote the essay for the video UBI: The Straight Truvada.

DIS - We had a conversation with Hito Steyerl a few years back and she talked about how history isn’t uniform, that it actually started to slow down in the 80s, eventually stopping altogether. There was a blockage, the present just wasn’t happening, until suddenly we had this trifecta: the Financial Crisis, Obama in power, and the rapid expansion of the internet. We were flooded with innovation, and at the same time, the economy was completely off the rails.

Christopher Glazek: I wonder if we are seeing some of that blockage now, actually with Trump. Trump is a vortex that sucks up all of our mental resources and time. There’s such an extraordinary degree of cultural concentration on this onestory and this one person. It inevitably means that people aren’t following other things. I compare it to people being obsessed with trading cryptocurrency. There's this whole segment of the art community that's basically been offline, trading crypto every day. There’s a chunk of personnel who are effectively on leave, and I wonder what will happen after they move on from crypto and Trump.

I keep waiting for the Trump moment to be registered in fashion, film, and music, and I feel like I’m still waiting, maybe because of this cultural blockage that Steyerl refers to, where things stop developing in moments of crisis. There’s a big scholarly debate surrounding World War 1 and the birth of modernism: people used to think that modernism grew out of the catastrophe of World War 1, but the scholarly consensus now is more that modernism was already developing around the turn of the century, and World War 1 actually interrupted and retarded its development.

- It's by no means a direct result of the financial crisis, but there was an ideological transformation that manifested in coordination with economic shifts and the growth of networked tech at this time. With brick and mortar financial realities crumbling, these entirely speculative ideas took off ushering in a new aspirational landscape—the entrepreneur, the gig economy, start-ups, the spirit of the sharing economy, the idea we all should work for ourselves. The notion of progress getting swooped into this idea of solutionism and so on.

I mean you've got to be an entrepreneur when you can't get a job at Condé Nast, right?

- Exactly, and with the rise of the internet, the corporate face changed—post-2008 it grew friendlier every year. Executives have beards and don’t wear ties.

Yeah. You wear a suit when your business is client driven, and nobody wants to look like they’re working for clients anymore. Dressing down means you work for yourself, it implies self-sufficiency, whereas wearing a suit has started to become almost a subaltern look, kind of like, “are you a doorman?”

- We’ll never forget the men and women in suits carrying boxes stuffed with their personals out of Lehman Brothers. Were you in New York for this?

No, I was out of the United States for a while right after college. I was in Cambridge in the UK, but Lehman Brothers wasn't the first thing that happened. It all started turning in 2007, and maybe even more in the UK, actually.

In 2008, I was very focused on the presidential election. For me, the really formative, traumatic historical event of my adolescence was not the financial crisis—it was really the Florida recount and the war in Iraq. In 2008, to the extent I was thinking about the economy, I was probably focused on what impact the economy would have on the 2008 presidential election. I was so desperate to get Republicans out of power that I probably thought it would be good for Obama, and therefore for the world, if the economy tanked. I got that wrong.

- What possibilities for social or economic change did the 2008 financial crisis afford, or perhaps more likely waste?

Obviously it ended up being an albatross around Obama’s neck and in the end, a lot of liberals and progressives dropped the ball after Obama was elected. He made some really big mistakes, particularly in failing to use the federal government to help homeowners refinance their mortgage debt. In hindsight this looks like an unforced error. There were other things of course—the stimulus wasn't big enough, and there wasn’t a public option in the healthcare bill—but failing to bail out homeowners looks like the biggest mistake ten years later. We ended up bailing out the banks but no one else, which made the financial sector even more power and created lots of opportunities for people able to direct and receive streams of cheap capital.

- If you think about the unforeseen consequences, it’s probably much worse. Fifty years of wealth gains of the middle class were wiped out. The taxpayers bailed out the banks and global private equity firms like The Blackstone Group set out to devise a new “rentership society” by renting out the homes they stole out from foreclosed upon owners. Their ads for “Smart Homes”say it all. Late capitalism makes it seem like everything is getting better while it only gets worse, convincing you have access to more, while making sure you actually have less.

Renting isn’t so bad as long as the rent is low! To be honest, I'm not sure I'm convinced that the financial crisis is as important as people think it is when it comes to issues like millennial precarity in the culture industry. The crisis probably exacerbated pre-existing trends, but the biggest issues facing millennials working in the arts in my opinion are really student debt and rising rents in city centers, which are only indirectly related to the financial crisis.

- If you're paying off your student loans, how can you think about buying a home, having children, paying for your children's education, let alone save for retirement? As capitalism accelerates, the holders of debt become fewer as the debtors grow more numerous—and more in the hole.

People used to go into debt to buy a home and now they go into debt to buy a degree. The problem is there are way fewer regulations around financing a degree. Degrees are very hard to value, and, unlike real estate, they’re not appreciating assets. If you buy a house, you can sell it someday. You can't sell your degree, and you might not even be able to sell the specialized labor skills the degree theoretically confers. And of course the rules around extinguishing student debt are comically onerous. Whereas mortgage debt you can extinguish pretty easily in some places. You can just totally walk away with few repercussions.

- You’ve said before that student debt and housing debt are our contemporary versions of original sin and that the promise of Universal Basic Income is to unshackle us from the sinking feeling of leading lives that are under-capitalized. What are the criticisms of UBI from the left?

The first is that UBI is a Trojan horse for dismantling the welfare state. The second related concern is that UBI, which is thought to disincentive work, is harmful for the labor movement, which is historically the only way that working-class people have exerted any real authority in society. If UBI is used to dismantle the welfare state—replacing rights and entitlements with a variable check—it might give wealthy elites even more power over society.

This critique from the left dovetails with a critique from the right: that UBI threatens social cohesion by undermining the dignity of work. On this reading, work is our contemporary religion, and society would unravel if we didn’t have jobs to structure our lives and identities. The retort would be that Silicon Valley has already devalued most kinds of work, and inscribed certain forms of inequality; UBI is a natural consequence of a world in which most work has already been devalued.

- With a population no longer living in fear of homelessness or starvation, to what extent could UBI reveal what humans really want?

Yeah, there's a concern about what we might find. The critique is that it’s a license to get divorced, do drugs, and play video games. Could UBI also stoke a race war? We already have lots of under-employed people spending hours every day fomenting racial hatred online. If they received monthly checks from the government, would that allow them to pursue racial hatred in a more committed, full-time way?

- In the essay you wrote for DIS, UBI: The Straight Truvada, you liken the economic promise of Universal Basic Income to the sexual freedom afforded by IUD birth control and PrEP, the once-a-day pill that protects from HIV.

It struck me when I started looking at UBI, how many of the criticisms reminded me of the criticisms of Truvada and, back in the day, birth control. There's a similar suspicion, certainly with Truvada, that what appears to be a utopian technology is actually a plot hatched by the ultra-wealthy to keep us in subjugation. That sort of misses the point, in my view.

- In the years that followed the financial crisis there weren’t many jobs, budgets had plummeted, there really wasn’t much opportunity to make money in the creative sector. For the seven of us that started DIS, what there was an abundance of was time, and that’s how DIS Magazine evolved. Financially we squeaked by, and of course no one worked on DIS for money, but what came out of this total lack of budget was likely more exciting than if there had been budgets. Maybe one of the effects UBI would have on culture is that everyone can have a magazine.

My favorite quote about UBI comes from Sam Altman, Silicon Valley’s most prominent UBI apostle. Responding to the worry that UBI could cause mass unemployment, Samsays: "Sure, maybe 90% of people will go smoke pot and play video games, but if 10% of the people go create incredible new products and services and new wealth, that's still a huge net win.” Obviously that reveals the extent to which, for Silicon Valley types like Altman, who worship entrepreneurship as the fullest expression of what it means to be human, the vast majority of people are engaged in work activities that are essentially “useless”—what you might call ”bullshit jobs,” I guess.

Everyone starting their own magazine is basically what Instagram already is. It’s interesting, when social media really started dominating the conversation say four or five years ago, I was pretty hopeful that it might help solve the “Oscar Wilde dilemma,” which is basically that egalitarianism is boring and aristocracy is fun. That’s essentially the argument that Wilde makes in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” The conundrum, according to Wilde, was not only how to redistribute wealth, but how to democratize the aristocratic sensibility—which, then as now, bears some link to queer exhibitionism—without flattening out culture. Social media seemed promising because it allowed everyone to behave as a celebrity, as if we were all followed by our own Real Housewives camera crew. The danger, I guess, was that in the new web 2.0 world— “The Soul of Man Under Social Media”—you’d trade an aristocracy of wealth for an aristocracy of affect. Social media privileges charisma and over-sharing; it punishes the meek. That seemed like a pretty good trade to me, but now we’re living the nightmare version under Trump–a true Twitter-ocracy. This is the world that “annihilates” people like Dr. Christine Ford and exalts the aggressive antics of Brett Kavanaugh.

In a world with UBI, do we each spend hours a day creating our own killer clips? Or are we headed there anyway, with or without public support? With UBI, at least, we might not have to get home from 10-hour work days and then spend 4 additional hours publishing content about our lives.

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