As the world’s pre-eminent heads of state gather in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this weekend for the annual G-20 summit, the postwar order has never looked more fragile. War threatens to break out at any moment between Russia and Ukraine, Britain is staring into the abyss of a failed Brexit negotiation and the U.S. faces a rising tide of ethno-nationalism, reinforced in no small part by Donald Trump’s presidency. Compounding this larger crisis, new research indicates we have just 12 years to radically reduce carbon emissions or risk climate catastrophe.
The center is not holding, and if a devastating new report from The New York Times is to be believed, the falconer’s falcon is but one of the innumerable creatures wiped off the planet just in the past 50 years. As Jonathan Aronson argues in his new book, “Digital DNA: Disruption and the Challenges for Global Governance,” we are living through a period of profound social and economic upheaval—one that threatens the very foundations of our political system.
“Last week, Sears declared bankruptcy,” Aronson tells Robert Scheer in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” “Sears, in many ways, was the Amazon of another age. They were the ones who distributed everything; they changed everything. So what has happened is the world has changed; the economies have changed; the companies have changed; but as usual, the rules have lagged behind.”
A professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Aronson examines what he refers to as a “hollowing out” of the working class and our elected officials. While the former has seen its jobs shipped overseas, the latter has grown increasingly beholden to multinationals, many of which now underwrite their campaigns. This, in turn, Aronson says, “pushes people left, it pushes people right. And at the same time you have an economic dearth in the middle. … The people who were in the middle in politics are also gone.”
That the United States and the West at large have arrived at an inflection point seems undeniable. Rather than give in to pessimism, however, Aronson argues we must view this historical moment as one of tremendous possibility.
“If we don’t get our act together and improve things for everybody—including your workers, your middle class, your poor, and not just the 1 percent—we could really descend into chaos,” he says. “But there is an opportunity, if we can get things right, which can only be done through bringing diverse groups with different interests together, and sort of finding ways to build a coalition among them, not against them—that there is still some hope.”
Listen to Aronson’s interview with Scheer or read a transcript of their conversation below:
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Jonathan Aronson, who has written a book with Peter Cowhey called “Digital DNA: Disruption and the Challenges for Global Governance.” The interesting idea of this book is–it’s a contradictory idea; on the one hand, clearly, digital communication, the digital age, the age of the internet, has changed everything. On the other hand, we have a set of problems that have been with us forever–problems of accountability, truth-telling, democracy, representation, bias. Our politics seem to be as much of an irrational mishmash as ever. And the public seems to be, well, more divided and more confused than ever. So what is the great wonder of the digital age?
Jonathan Aronson: It’s two things. You’re right; it’s contradictory. On the one hand, what has changed a great deal is the internet changes everything. Now, that’s both true and meaningless, because what it means is that you have to break it down and look piece-by-piece at what’s going on. In the case of this book, what we’re saying is communication, information technology, has forced the change of supply [chains] and business models of every kind of business. From agriculture to mining, from manufacturing to high-tech. All of those are changing, and all of those companies are scrambling to figure out how to continue to make money. This week, Sears declared bankruptcy. Sears, in many ways, was the Amazon of another age. They were the ones who distributed everything; they changed everything. So what has happened is the world has changed; the economies have changed; the companies have changed; but as usual, the rules have lagged behind.
RS: So let me ask you a question about this, because you’re a professor here at the University of Southern California Annenberg School in communications, but you also have a joint appointment in international relations. And when I look at this whole international situation, you know, at first we thought, as you say, the internet changes everything–we thought we’d get smarter, we’d have more information, our lives would be more meaningful. But there was a lurking fear that our work models may be broken, robotics may change everything. It seems to me the unexpected consequence of the internet is that capitalism, in a fundamental way, may be at risk. And an old concern of social well-being, of social welfare, is asserting itself: if people are going to lose their jobs, or the jobs are going to go abroad, or if some, a number of people are going to become billionaires and the others are going to have stagnant wages. You have a great fear that life as we know it no longer exists. And here we’re teaching at a university, where people are going to graduate; they have to go out and work, and they’re probably as set up for the internet world as any group of students; our school is very good at that. But on the other hand, the good-paying jobs may not be there. Their parents already know that; they’ve gone through a housing crisis, a recession. So let me ask you, in terms of your book–and I read it very carefully–I actually found it quite depressing. Not because of your writing or anything, but because of its vision of the world: that the brave new world of the internet might not sustain meaningful, productive, and stable life.
JA: We are in a period of dynamic change. I’m more optimistic about this. On the one hand, I see that the top-end students, people who are coming from here, people who know something about coding, people who are entrepreneurial, are probably going to do just fine. Even in an age of robots, I haven’t seen a student here in forty years who said, “I want to be on a manufacturing line.” We don’t produce students who will be displaced by robots. They may be involved with it. In addition, you have AI, artificial intelligence; you have 3-D printing, sometimes called advanced manufacturing. All of those are changing things, and it’s dynamically shifting very quickly. The other end of the scale, people who don’t have very much education at all–there are still going to be jobs there. The big problem is in the middle: what do we do with people who were making good money in steel factories, at automobile manufacturers, and those jobs are rapidly going away? Even in a place like a coal mine–President Trump is fond of saying “I’m going to bring back the coal mine.” Well, if that happens to be true, the miners are much more likely to be whizzing around–non-humans, robots of some sort that don’t get black lung disease, don’t unionize, and don’t demand pay. You’re never going to get the return of miners, and nobody much wants it.
RS: Well, let me tell you who wants it. When you’re a miner and you belong to the United Mine Workers union, or you’re an auto worker and you belong to the United Auto Workers, we had a mechanism for social justice in this society. We had a way of people getting decent wages, decent health care, decent opportunities, a prospect of sending their kids to the state university or somewhere else, where they would get ahead in life, and so forth. So we had the, for once, a modern economic component of equality, of opportunity, of a growing middle class. However, the internet has destroyed a model of sharing wealth. You see it with Amazon that doesn’t have unionized workers. You see it with the end of the journalism industry. We’re a school of communication and journalism; we now have more PR students than we have journalism students. So the business model of the internet begs for a new kind of socialism–or, on the right-wing side, a new kind of fascism.
JA: It’s a real serious problem. The book does not address employment directly, but what it acknowledges and what is embedded in it is that there is an extreme hollowing out in the middle. That the middle class are the ones who have not made the gains. It’s not just for themselves, because the coal miners may not have wanted to raise kids who were coal miners; they wanted to raise kids who could do well, and they’re losing that opportunity. So that’s where they are pushing it. At the same time, we have had the polarization and hollowing out of our elected officials. So it pushes people left, it pushes people right, and at the same time you have an economic dearth in the middle. You have–the people who were in the middle in politics are also gone.
RS: Well, but let’s take this disappearing middle class, or hollowing out of the middle class. Because the middle class was the great hope of democracy, economic democracy and stability. De Tocqueville, as a foreign observer, made a very important point: the saving grace of the American experiment was this ever-expanding middle class–of opportunity, of increasing skills, education, and so forth. If that has been hollowed out, what comes in its place? Maybe what comes in its place–and this is why I bring up Sanders and Trump–is either a regimented society, which rewards people who go along and march in lock-step, which is the neofascist model, and you keep your nose clean and OK, we’ll take care of you. Or a society which empowers people, aside from whether they have wealth or not, where you have meaningful elections without–with real campaign finance. Where you have guaranteed health care, so your job is not the ticket to your actual survival, right? Where you have guaranteed minimum wage, so people can live off their work. And it really seems to me a battle between a vision of fascism and a vision of social democracy.
JA: Or at least of authoritarianism. Doesn’t have to be a completely fascist state.
RS: Well, let me explain, because you’re a professor of international relations, I just want to defend the fascist label. Because the key to fascism really is an alliance between corporations, and a chauvinistic, jingoistic political message. And what I fear, and the reason I use the fascist element, it seems to me that one way you get stability is through this law-and-order, jingoistic, chauvinistic model. The other is by empowering–through unions, or through public education, or social services, or guaranteed health care–you empower, as maybe the Swedish model, the ordinary person to have a decent life, with or without wealth.
JA: Democratic socialism is the term that is sometimes being used. The problem is quite simple, which is those on that side, at this stage, are still losing, and losing consistently. So you take Sweden, for example; a right-wing party came in third, and has increasing power in Sweden in the election that happened last month. What you’re seeing over and over again is that those forces may win small pieces–individual elections–but they’re not winning the big elections. And the people who are afraid of immigrants, on the one hand, losing their own prosperity, are in the ascendant right now. I asked my students today what was the difference between strategy and tactics, and nobody knew. That catches us into the political side of this, because we have a president who doesn’t understand strategy, but who is a master tactician. He has a tactic, which he applies over and over and over again. And it works often enough that it attracts a stable base of supporters. But there’s no perception of where he wants to go with that.
RS: Tell us about the tactic.
JA: The tactic is pretty simple. And pretty well understood. One, President Trump believes that anything that he didn’t do, was wrong. So NAFTA was terrible, but the NAFTA revision, which was really an update, and quite incremental, was wonderful. Anything Obama did was terrible, by definition. Often anything a fellow republican did. So if it wasn’t his idea, it was a terrible thing. That’s part one. Part two, we all know he’s transactional. So that he is dealing in the moment, he is trying to think in terms of a zero-sum game; he plays what game theorists would call “chicken.” So he goes full-throttle ahead and hopes very much that the other side, being more rational than he, turns aside. Fourth, he is shameless. So it has been documented over and over and over again that he simply doesn’t tell the truth. He may not understand the difference between truth and lies, and he doesn’t care. And then fifth, he never apologizes.
RS: OK. So I got that, and I think that’s a pretty accurate description. But let me throw in another element, because this is true of any demagogue, effective demagogue. There has to be something they’re feeding on. There has to be angst, fear, a desperation–
RS: –anger, in the society. And we make a mistake if we minimize the significance of that. And I want to just throw in–and this does go to your book. And what we are seeing is a resurgence of a kind of nationalism, a jingoism. And Trump personifies that, but we’re seeing that in other countries. It seems to me we underestimate the Trump strategy and appeal if we don’t recognize that there is a big problem. And the big problem is that globalization doesn’t deliver back to the citizens of the nation-state. It actually begs the question, why do you need a nation-state? OK? When I look out at our students, the first thing I see are these open computers–every one of which, by the way, has been made in communist China. You know, now, if [Laughs] 20 years ago, when I first arrived here, or 25 years ago, if somebody had told me that communist China would represent the most successful capitalist model in this new economy, I would have thought they were crazy. But the fact of the matter is, an authoritarian state–China, still run by a communist party–has developed a model of catering to consumerism, of using this new technology, and so forth. OK. The big question for China or the United States really is, do you distribute the wealth? Really, your book begs the question, in the internet age, what is the significance of the nation-state?
JA: Let me both agree and disagree with you. Agreeing that business models are now global, and not going to be turned around. If you look at why the NAFTA is at some level trying to chase something that’s already happened, if you look at an auto engine right now, we are worrying about whether it’s 70 percent American, what part of it, what do we do with Mexico, what do we do with Canada. And in fact, an auto engine, the average number of times it moves across one border or another in North America is eight. From the time they begin it to the time it is delivered to wherever it is. It is impossible to figure out, is this an American, Canadian, Mexican, or something else in terms of that. So the model is global, and that runs in stark contradiction to the nation-state. In that, you’re absolutely right. The book is trying to do something else. First, we are believers in patience. That the reason we think there’s going to be a need for some global agreements, is that the system will be much less efficient, it will be much less robust and productive, if you don’t get some principles and norms agreed among nations. Do we expect this in the next two years? No, we do not.
RS: Right. And the book is “Digital DNA: Disruption and Challenges for Global Governance.” I am talking to Jonathan Aronson, a professor at the University of Southern California in international relations and in communication. [omission for station break] And I want to pick up on the point you were just making about where cars are produced, and NAFTA. And I think you kind of minimized–dare I say it, I hope I don’t get fired over this–Trump’s achievement with NAFTA 2.0.
JA: Well, let me make a couple of quick notes. OK, first, I want to note for the audience that the book is written with Peter Cowhey, who is a professor at the University of California, San Diego. Two, the data on NAFTA is very mixed. What we know is that the extremes are wrong. It did not help people in any country as much as those who proclaimed that it would had promised. Two, it did not hurt people inordinately. The best data that has come out seems to suggest that what you got was–it’s marginally better overall; it caused some real job growth, but the jobs that were lost tended to be much more union jobs. So the unions were hurt, but not the overall employment, in terms of this.
RS: By the way, NAFTA 2.0, I don’t want to give Trump too much credit, there was a serious cave-in on pharmaceuticals, which undermines Canada’s example of being able to control the prices of pharmaceuticals. This was a surprisingly good improvement over NAFTA, coming as it did from Trump. The bottom line is that no one of significance speaks for ordinary people. That’s why they turn to outliers–a good one like Bernie Sanders, a bad one like Trump. The reality is–and I was at the Democratic [National] Convention, and this TPP for instance, the trade agreement, and NAFTA, were attacked by the union people there, and many of the delegates felt the party had betrayed them on this issue, OK. So the significance–and this is why I’m bringing it up in context to this globalization–is that the average person in this country, including many democrats, feels they’ve been betrayed by this shift in the economy. And I want to spend a little time on this view of the new tech world. Because, yes, there are people in Silicon Valley who make good wages. But the fact is that most of the jobs connected with those computers and everything else in the high-tech world are either done abroad, you know, where profits for Apple and others are basically earned, and from low-wage workers; or they’re created here. I mean, a company like Amazon is a national scandal. Think about it! I mean, here’s a company where people are running around warehouses, and they are low paid, have not had basic rights to organize, unions have been busted. So all of the progress–but the fact is, in all of these trade agreements, no one cared about the tenure for ordinary workers. They got screwed. OK? I know I’m bringing some anger to the thing–
JA: That’s good!
RS: –but I don’t want to lose the issue. And the reason I think we can’t lose it is we can’t understand this election. We can’t understand this dynamic in the world. And yes, you get a rise of the right-wing when you don’t have a rise of the progressive left. But the fact of the matter is, the status quo cannot hold if trade and financial decisions and deregulation are all made for the one percent. That’s the bottom line.
JA: I agree with that. My problem is, I don’t have a good answer of how to get from here to there, to where you’re talking about. And I don’t know anybody who really does. Should the taxes on the one percent be higher? Absolutely. Where should you go with this? How do you manage to do that? I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know very many people who even have the beginning of an answer. So what I try to do, in my modest but not too modest way, along with Professor Cowhey, is plot a path to help improve the overall situation, and hope to hell that people smarter than I am can figure out how to solve, or how to begin to solve, the kinds of problems you’re describing. How do you set the, reset the equilibrium so that you can begin to focus on issues like this? The one that’s gotten a lot more attention is climate; how do you reset this when we have people who deny science running the country? There is a climate problem right now. It should be obvious to pretty much everybody; it isn’t. There is an employment problem. How do you deal with it? It should be obvious that we have the problem, but then where do you go? I’m reasonably certain, in terms of the areas that I deal with; I’m not a labor economist.
RS: I think we can find common ground. And that’s why I wanted to talk to you about your book. I think the book is very powerful, very interesting, in that you grasp the significance of what the title of the book is, “Digital DNA: Disruption and Challenges for Global Governance.” It’s worth reading–let me just be on the record here–it’s worth reading this book to get the scope of the change. I agree that there’s disruption and challenges for global governance. What I’m trying to say is, your book is a launching pad–I’m trying to take you to the next stage. And so I would like to move this discussion to this area of what do we do. And I’m going to give you some answers that I think lie in our history, OK. And this is why I brought up these old-fashioned labels of social democracy–and I’m not the first one; we finally do have people in our political process now who call themselves social democrats and so forth. And that’s a very good rubric for people who say, government has to care about the least among us and about working people and ordinary people, and the wealth has to be shared, to a degree that we have stakeholders and people can live a good life–OK. There’s a program connected with that–meaningful public education that is free, and Bernie Sanders was not being a wild-eyed guy when he said you could go through college, and should. When I went to City College in New York, you know, it was a free university. So we had a model of meaningful, free education: the state universities, the land-grant colleges, here in California the community colleges; we dropped that. We went for elite education, we went for a meritocracy, and you know, what does industry want, and we’ll be a service, we’ll feed industry what it wants. OK. So, ah, raising the minimum wage to something significant goes a long way to giving people a sense of safety–OK, do what you want with the economy, do trade, make all the deals, but make sure that people working here can make a living wage so they can support their family, and they will not be responsible for their children’s education, and they will not be responsible for their health care. That in fact, this is a human right, OK? So we extend human rights, and we extend it in these trade agreements, and here’s my beef with your book. These trade agreements did not include environmental protections in any significant way; they certainly did not include labor protections; but most important, they didn’t contain guarantees of democratic decision-making. The problem with NAFTA, these courts–if you have a legal issue, you go into basically a private court controlled by the corporations, who then bring in their own lawyers, and the judges are their lawyers from their thing. And there was no–they didn’t even let people, in the latest trade agreements, they didn’t even let people in Congress share it with the media. They had to go into secret rooms to read these things. So what you really have lost is the most fundamental human right, which is the democratic right of individuals to know what’s going on and what’s supposedly being done in their name. Unfortunately, if you don’t have that, you end up with this fascistic model of–that it seems to me Donald Trump is pushing to–where you disenfranchise ordinary people, by appealing to jingoism, by scapegoating immigrants and others, by buying them off with trinkets like the Volkswagen. And you give them jobs working in a militarized economy, and that’s the alternative model. That’s the dilemma that this new DNA of technology has presented us with.
JA: Let me answer in three parts. First, what I absolutely agree with is that what we created was a launching platform. But it is a multi-use launching platform. By describing the way the world economy exists today, it gives and opportunity for people to–and nations, and corporations, and civil society–to negotiate on a number of issues, from climate to environment to trade agreements. Second, something that hasn’t been mentioned here, but it’s gotten really messy and more complicated. To throw in three specific issues that have complicated matters, but make this really hard: one, we have the cloud; your data may be floating around anywhere. It’s not national anymore; you have no idea where it is. Two, and better known, we have all of the cybersecurity issues that have been raised. Trade people never dealt with those; they haven’t a clue how to deal with those, though they are trying hard to deal with it. And third, privacy issues are increasingly on the front page, are extremely important, from Facebook to Amazon. But in terms of what should be private–what do you think of “the right to be forgotten,” a European phrase? So those three things aren’t there. And finally, we haven’t talked about the way we suggest organizing the movement forward. And we are very strongly in favor of what are called multi-stakeholder organizations. We do not think that in this complicated, messy world, it is any longer possible for you to have states, to state, a big international institution, maybe a bank or two, do the negotiations. If civil society, if unions, if interested groups are not at the table, you’re not going to create the kinds of agreements that are going to hold going forward. So that in your sense of seeking a more democratic and transparent perspective, we’re all in.
RS: We’re in a total agreement on this. I think the–what we’re seeing with Trump is the center is not holding. The agreements don’t hold, whether it’s Iran or whether it’s NAFTA, or whatever. You can make agreements; if the public feels disenfranchised and left out and not attended to, these things are not going to hold. You’re going to have disruption, you’re going to have chaos; Donald Trump is a chaotic president. So we’re in agreement on that. Now, I want to end by taking the three points that you raised: the cloud–that it’s not national, it’s multinational–cybersecurity, and privacy. They’re all three interrelated, and the significance of the cloud not being national is, they’re basically talking about the collection of data worldwide, the commingling of data, the mining of data. And the reality is that you can think you’re giving your data over to a democratic society in England or the United States, but that data is circulating in Egypt, it’s circulating in Brazil, anywhere else–China, Russia, and so forth. And one of the ironies here is that Jeff Bezos, who now owns, personally owns the Washington Post–their main money that Amazon has made is not by selling you books or selling you articles of clothing–
JA: TWS, the cloud.
RS: Yes. The cloud. Amazon is, this money is coming–and they are a defense contractor. They are building the cloud for our intelligence agencies, right? They’re getting all the data that NSA has, CIA; they get to mine it, they get to work with it. So they are defense contractors. The contradiction for the people doing the cloud are the same as that go into cybersecurity, and the same that go into privacy. And this is the fundamental point I wanted to bring up with you: is nationalism dead? Because–and this is where Google and Apple and Facebook are all in trouble–you can cater to the CIA or the NSA or your own government’s congress, or what have you. But how are you going to enter the Chinese market, the Indian market? How are you going to be in Europe, the European Union and so forth? And it goes to the privacy question; you’re absolutely right, the European Union has pushed back on this invasion of privacy. But the dirty secret of the internet is that without invading privacy, you don’t have a profit model. For most of these companies. Their money-making model is by destroying your privacy. It is also opening up to cybersecurity questions, and it also has to do with the cloud; these three are joined. And they’re basically, the dirty secret of the new internet world is your private data, your most sacred, who you are, the definition of who you are, the thing that can be used to imprison you, to con you, to betray you–that is the stuff that is the source of profit, exploiting that. So I’m going to give you the last word on this: is this the brave new world that you’ve described in your book?
JA: I think very much that we are at an inflection point. If we don’t get our act together and improve things for everybody–including your workers, your middle class, your poor, and not just the one percent–we could really descend into chaos. But there is an opportunity, if we can get things right, which can only be done through bringing diverse groups with different interests together, and sort of finding ways to build a coalition among them, not against them–that there is still some hope. So I have spent a career trying to be an optimist. Sometimes it’s hard, but I prefer that way than to, trying to duck things that are falling from the sky.
RS: The book is “Digital DNA: Disruption and Challenges for Global Governance,” Oxford University Press. Came out last year. And I’ve been talking to Jonathan Aronson, who is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, as well as a professor in this school of international studies, here at USC. And we are grateful that they made this studio available. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Isabel Carreon. And we’ll see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.