Marginálie - alpha

“You literally ought to be asking yourself all the time 'what is the most important thing in the world I could be working on right now?' and if you are not working on that why aren’t you?” - Aaron Swartz

Marginálie is a prototype for a Creative Commons zine. It is being built, and written, with the philosophy of DIY culture in mind at a time when such things are needed more than ever. It is, for me, one of the answers to the question posed by Aaron Swartz above. The reason this is one of the answers to this dangerously idealistic question is due in part to what might otherwise have been the only possible answer: a fictional world, initially a novel, subsequently, gallingly, a series of unwritten novels by the name of Call Them Soldiers. This world first made itself known to me in 2008-2009 when Facebook was beginning to insinuate itself into the idiosyncratic communities I was surrounded by, and also then to change them. I was between jobs, between lives, things had fallen apart again. I worked on it for a few months after a fashion. I then moved to North Wales to clean toilets and man reception desks and busied myself with trying to keep a roof over my head. And so it went to ground like a sleeper cell in my mind over the years - years of constant frenetic zigzag sprints - coming up periodically to wreak havoc. Sadly, it has only made more sense as time has gone on, and then too, has only become more dangerously real.

Sad, that is, because Call Them Soldiers would inevitably be dubbed a "dystopia". Even a glance over the ten years of its incomplete gestation at the depth common to headline-led journalism would furnish us with hundreds of real world developments each of which might underscore the inadequacy of that term and the inappropriateness in particular of its associations such as might pad out an undergraduate essay or a think piece. Be that as it may, it's true enough that one could imagine an ideal type dream, something like a fairytale from a children's book, of drawing a map of an imaginary world, and then discovering it in a drawer or a jacket pocket every once in a while, years apart, unfolding it, and seeing how the landscape had shifted to match it as you grew into the world around you; Call Them Soldiers as it evolved and as it surfaced in my mind or navigated the depths of my mind as I struggled to gain a foothold in the real world in the two countries I have known, was the opposite of this cosy little daydream: if civilisations might be said to have genres like books and films, then ours has been some fork of cyperpunk for some time - decades here, years there - or is, more eerily even than this, some superposition of states and dispositions so that none of us can ever feel quite sure what world we are living in until it has already been decided for us.

I studied politics - officially, that is - from 1999, and was coming into my final year at university when September 11th happened. We all saw that. And none of us did. We all saw it, that is, from the directions we were supposed to see it. Saw it as a series of moving images, a series of talking heads, and then, perhaps, a film or two. It seems rather debatable if we saw first and foremost the victims. Certainly we did not, not for the longest time, if we are to count the emergency first responders, many of whom have been ill and dying since, as among those victims; still less did we count them, as a society, if we are to count as victims of that day the second and third-order victims, the combatants and civilian casualties of wars launched as if in memory of those first victims on the planes and in the towers. It seemed to me, at least, that we saw these victims only when and where it was convenient for us to see them; convenient, that is, to those in power, to those who were using this once-unimaginable tragedy to further policy ends they had demonstrably had prior to these events having taken place.

Mine is a sliver of a forgotten generation, Generation X, and this was the world we were growing up into. Of course we knew it was all about oil. George Bush Senior had said as much when we went in to Iraq the first time around, though even then the notion of 'humanitarian intervention' was bolted on as a justification. Since then this style of more-or-less-unreconstructed imperial conflict had become less politically palatable and so the sickening sanctimony of the Tony Blairs of this world became the norm. Now Saddam was a bastard - he had, like many before him in that unfortunate region of the world been our bastard for a long time, shaking the hands of the great and the good - but, as we got rid of him, and though it might reasonably have been thought a good thing to see him gone,1 it mattered that the talk of establishing democracy was as much a lie as it had ever been in this part of the world when spoken by Westerners. It mattered that the very real terror and tragedy of September 11th had been mythologised, turned into a weaponised narrative with a payload which is still playing out today, just as it matters that the narrative of the Cold War had had us partner with the Mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan: what some of the old mumblers in the back row at an ill-fated wedding know is that all of the muddled motivations and even those lies one tells oneself at the very beginning have a habit of replicating themselves like mitochondrial DNA, of being the power behind it all throughout. And so it was.

Such wars had always taken place, of course, and likely always will. Those of us who had studied politics or history knew that. Accompanying them too, had always been a war on truth. The novel problem with the war on terror was twofold:

  1. Its boundaries were uncertain by definition, and liable to shift
  2. Its ostensible goals were arguably either impossible or made so by its methods ie. terrorism could not be eradicated, and every occupation, prolonged bombardment, and militarily-enforced order in history had led to the creation or escalation of asymmetrical warfare where there was not the possibility of traditional war, never to its eradication or prevention.

These features meant that the War on Terror my generation would grow up with (and the following generation, either taking it for granted, or knowing only more debased and pliant mass media than we knew ourselves, would often overlook) was in many ways an extension of the Cold War, whose lies and distortions, it is too often forgotten, harmed those in the West as well as those in the East. The toolset, however, in terms of the creation, optimilisation, targetting, and delivery of narrative, myth, and mistruths, had improved quite as much as the weapons that could be sent through sea, land, and sky once those all important hearts and minds had been won. Disastrous on two fronts, military weapons made their way to police forces with flashbang stun grenades blowing holes in adults and children in the global North as well as the South and insidious and powerful propaganda operating for states, corporations, and wealthy networked individuals. That this has destroyed our politics is grave; what it has done to our minds, now glutted with daemonic memes and Sorelian myths grown in the petri dishes of a handful of secretive PR companies and intelligence agencies, and distributed, mainly, using digital analogues of scatterbombs, laser guided weapons, and every kind of ordinance including the dirty bomb, is at least equally so even in the present moment, but stands to lock us in to this state of affairs like a military-grade ratchet until the combination of human weakness and the skewed motivations of the version of late capitalism constantly sold to us makes this planet unliveable.2

I first went to Prague in the Czech Republic in December, 2003, some months after I had marched against the war. I had finished university intent on becoming either a writer or a foreign correspondent but had neither the contacts, nor the resources, nor, perhaps, the mental health, for either.3 I would not be diagnosed with ADHD or autism ('traits of', so they said), until I was in my mid-thirties. With the pressure of deadlines, the right guidance, and the right environment, this would undoutedly not have mattered even if I had not found medical treatment or better nutrition, but we were by now in a different world and I was more than prepared to turn my back on Great Britain as I believed Great Britain had turned its back on me.

A novel or a fictional world, one that stays with you, which outweighs real life as often as not, arises in the mind as characters, people that is, as the relations between them, happens in the mind as as setting, as plot, each of these growing with their connections as if they were organs, part of an organism whose kicks an author can then feel as these organs in their various connections become more than the sum of their parts; such a world is not a thesis and Call Them Soldiers emerged from my unconscious, a transposition of a rather rum errand with a friend facing a dilemma with his marijuana plants, fused with things I had read or been reading (Anne Frank's diary and some histories of Czechoslovakia are the easier among them to place), to the power of the sum of my experience to date. It is neither a thesis nor a logical argument, then, but it was certainly informed by the understanding that it was not foremost because of repression but economic incompetence and the absurdities of the command economy that communism collapsed in the last years of the 80s. Indeed, in Czechoslovakia the lumpen authorities had, by the time of the 1970s, disovered the effectiveness of using a carrot alongside the stick. They had been taking notes from the West. Soap operas and consumer goods (even if in both cases these were poor immitations of Western alternatives)4 and weekend retreats to cottages could have continued to cover a multitude of sins if only the consumer goods could have kept on coming. Mariusz Szczygieł, a Polish journalist, wrote a book about the half of Czechoslovakia that would become The Czech Republic called Gottland after Karel Gott, twenty times winner of the Czech Nightingale award for best Czech male singer and star of newspaper Deník N's Face of Normalisation series which examines the reimplementation of Marxist-Leninist norms following the aberation of the Prague Spring. With Gott singing for the system, with the live action fairytales Czechoslovakia specialised in alongside East Germany, and with the gentle comedies of those days, the authorities were on the way to a winning formula. There would have had to have been repression, of course, but it could have been far more surgical: plenty of people can be bought off with little, and they turn their heads when the trouble makers get what they are asking for: don't put out the fires that aren't burning you! "1984 was not a manual" we see regularly, but in terms of techniques of command and control, we are seeing more in the line of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, each of which with their escapist entertainments, were a better indication of the best way to control a population than George Orwell with his boot stamping on a human face forever. Granted, the inmates in Guantanamo Bay, and Chelsea Manning, might disagree and we are clearly being lied to as well as distracted, but Call Them Soldiers was full of the dopamine hits that can be delivered by technology, the Pavlovian responses, the sexual kicks. The saddest and most tragic thing about it may have been how easy it was to sympathise with those who had sold themselves out, who no longer had any individual agency at all, people who had helped to build a world where the freedoms they might once have still chosen to enjoy were not possible either for themselves or for their fellow-citizens.

Periodically over those ten years I took out that map and held it up to the world around me. Soon enough I was holding it up to deep fakes and smart speakers and botnets made of internet-enabled boilers and lightbulbs, to advertisements for facial recognition locks on one's smart phone, to Bitcoin shills, and to IT billionaires funding sinister data-led targetted operations on major elections: democracy had already been undermined by oligarchy; now it had been bipassed entirely.

The first version of the network intelligence I would later call the Eudaemon (after eudaimonia, a Greek word meaning 'happiness', 'welfare' but also 'human flourishing or prosperity'), was called the "Condoit"; this tied it, perhaps, more directly to the methods of marketing than to the state itself but also described more or less what it offered: it was to be a channel through which people could meet, but also was to be a great enabler, permitting anybody to realise their dreams, of getting out there and doing it, whatever it was (and equally of course, the Condoit would help them to find it). The internet, of course, was as much born of the nuclear threat of the Cold War as was the space race - it was, on the one hand, a resilient network which could route around the kinds of infrastructural catastrophe that would be inflicted by a nuclear strike, and on the other, was to be the means of reaching for the kind of utopia fomented in those mutagenic days of the ubiquitous polar opposite unrealities of the two confrontational blocs. The internet, it was clear by 2008, was about hearts and minds; it was about mapping the human mind like those Google cars, their roofs full of cameras, mapped the streets even of Stourbridge. It might have been otherwise, just as it could still be otherwise, and there have from the very beginning been people building tools most Facebook users will never hear of, which might have led to a very different, freer internet of people who were getting more out of their computers than their computer got out of them, but these were canoes in the wake of superyachts.5 And then if the technologies of the early internet were more about individual agency than they are now, and if they permitted those who connected to really make human and intellectual connections, the networks were less democratic than they are now.

Everybody who understands computers even a fraction as well as I do myself (and this web application of mine is a clusterfuck of ADHD hacks routed more or less arbitrarily and sometimes at length around anything boring or odious, and takes, meanwhile, its structure from a moral incapacity to compromise upon principle) knows that every networked computer on this earth has hundreds of major vulnerabilities and that the exploits that crack them wide open find their way with some efficiency to precisely the people you would not want to have them. Computer code can be patched, hardware redesigned; if we didn't keep on innovating, they might become more robust over time. The vulnerabilities in the human mind, meanwhile, have been known to some for hundreds of years. Time worn exploits have been passed on for thousands of years; they have been developed in secret; they have been tested 'in production' in every civilisation that has ever existed. Those most motivated to gather, curate, and hone them, are those who want power; those best placed to do so are those that have it. Now make people into little more than a node in a network, with that network sending inputs of all kinds through the eyes, the ears, and increasingly the skin; make computer networks so ubiquitous and omnipotent that relationships are formed and conducted through them, romantic and sexual pairings made, jobs sought and awarded, and all kinds of status created and maintained through them, you soon have a situation where the network, taken as a whole, meaningfully controls most of the inputs into people's minds. You have daemons working constantly, narrative doing its work; you have the whole thing sewn up.

I began to work on Call Them Soldiers again in the autumn of 2017. It would be some time yet before investigative reporters began to unpick some of the stories relating to Cambridge Analytica and the like. What was obvious, though, was just how the gravity lensing of masses of wealth was distorting everything and how, since, naturally, money was being used to advance a narrrative useful to candidates and power structures which only furthered the deregulation of banks and corporations at the expense of ordinary people whether wage earners or otherwise, we were to see an acceleration of the destabilising forces which had been rampant since the collapse of the communist bloc. In those periods of the democratic era most people implicitly or explicitly refer to when they speak of institutions working well, there were always pressures towards reform and humanism. Before the fear of real existing communism there had been the fear of communists, anarchists, and other progressives: sometimes a reform was made here or there to let off a little pressure.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” - Frederick Douglass

Demands continued into the nineties when we were being told - and it was often believed - that we had reached "the end of history".6 Environmental protest was alive and well for a time in the UK, and there were a handful of outbreaks of something like old-fashioned protest over The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. This could, in British terms, be an interesting benchmark due to the infringements of liberties it touches upon and the fact that this was around the time of Eternal September, when the internet broke for the masses. Later, greater rollbacks of civil liberties which were tied to ostensibly anti-terrorist legislation passed without anything like the same level of what Douglass calls struggle.

Subsequently it has sometimes felt like anger can be generated and displaced, directed one way or another, and that anger against the elites never lasts very long before something comes up which gets people more riled up.

- krozruch, Marginálie editor-in-chief and lead dev, Stourbridge, August, 2019

1 There will be a discussion on this point in relation to Václav Havel, no doubt.

2 What is true of the relationship of war in the Middle East to democracy, of Bitcoin to the unbanked, of private, centralised advertising-funded social networks to what they call "community", and of genetically-modifed crops to world hunger, the likelihood of the making of other planets reachably inhabitable for the many is delimited not merely, nor even necessarily most ruinously by the facts on the ground, but by the most salient intentions of the individuals and institutions who are in pursuit of the supposed objective. The notion that we could become a multi-planetary species in the timeframe available to us if we do not otherwise get our shit together, however, is the most risible of all but one of the more optimistic analyses of the above quests. A handful of billionaires on Mars would no more falsify this statement than a handful of GMO-grain-fed Bitcoin entrepreneurs with a $20 phone and a cool idea in a refugee camp in a tub thumping Wall Street Journal piece some years from now.

3 I write perhaps not because I am not sure as to whether I had good mental health - I didn't, though some of the conditions I suffered from are disabling principly because of the way others' react to them - but because I think it reasonable to doubt the extent to which good mental health as traditionally understood is such a boon in either vocation: the pressure of newspaper journalism or the support of a decent agent or editor would almost certainly have rendered me neurotically or edgily functional long before I sought the medical help that would in such circumstances have been rather more available to me and probably more effective. Having a role that makes sense of oneself is one sound basis of good mental health. Its absence is typically multifariously catastrophic; this is typically ignored by the kind of people who talk about market efficiencies, 'optimal' levels of unemployment, who defend zero-hours contracts and argue against minimum wage legislation. In short, marginalisation, expecctations of marginalisation and poor mental health go hand in hand.

4 Of course at this point in time the borders were not completely closed and the flow of currencies could not be. The manner that people could be sufficiently well-networked and well-resourced to acquire Western consumer goods was different from that in the West, but not markedly so, and as soon as the markets opened up and it came to the drastic forms of privitisation pushed by Western advisors, prominent communists typically did well to adjust to the new realities, often indeed more so than the descendents of pre-communist business owners and the vanguard of would be capitalists who had been pushing for reform: the reality of the existence of this class (we might borrow Marx to describe its "contradictory class position") have shaped the realities of post-communist life not only in the Czech Republic. If you take the bus from the airport in Prague to the metro, you will see on the lefthand side a brutalist building, nowadays named The Cube, which once housed one of the shops where Bony, an exchange currency, could be used to buy Western goods including cars.

5 Now and again you see something on the horizzon that looks like a canoe. After a couple of blinks you realise some superyacht type has had it adapted into a Roman oared warship.

6 It's interesting how already we see, as we wsaw with communism, that some of former believers are insightful on the draws of neoliberalism. John Gray is one such. But even doyens of the British elite such as Sir Larry Siedentop CBE have noted as early as the turn of the century that this belief in the power of the market to govern everything is "Marxist" ie. history has been moving towards an end goal.

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