Why Tech Makes Us More Insecure
Paris Marx is joined by Astra Taylor to discuss how capitalism creates insecurity to sustain itself, the way tech is used to make us more insecure, and what it will take to change that.
Astra Taylor is a writer, filmmaker, and political organizer. She’s the author of The Age of Insecurity and co-founder of the Debt Collective. Her next book Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea, written with Leah Hunt-Hendrix, comes out in March.
Support the show
Venture capitalists aren’t funding critical analysis of the tech industry — that’s why the show relies on listener support.
Become a supporter on Patreon to ensure the show can keep promoting critical tech perspectives. That will also get you access to the Discord chat, a shoutout on the show, some stickers, and more!
Paris Marx: Astra, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Astra Taylor: I’m so happy to be here.
PM: I’m so excited to have you on the show. We’ve talked about it in the past for a bit, and then took a break. But then you had this new book out based on some Massey Lectures that you gave up here in Canada. And I thought it was the perfect opportunity to finally have you on the show and chat. So, I’m happy to dive into that, and I’m sure so much more. Let’s start with the concept of these lectures in this book, which is really insecurity. Why was this the thing that really drove you and why did you feel compelled to explore this, in much greater depth, in these lectures?
AT: I just want to say I’m so happy to be on your show, and it’s true we talked about it years ago, and especially thanks for having me when this isn’t an explicitly tech focused book, though I chat about tech a little bit in it. The idea to write about insecurity actually was prompted from a conversation with Ben Tarnoff, who is one of the founding editors of Logic Magazine — probably someone who’s familiar to your listeners — and was putting together an issue of the magazine with the theme of security. And so, he called me up asking if I might want to write for it. And I just remember saying in response: Well, what if I talk about the way that capitalism is actually an insecurity generating machine, the way capitalism actually needs insecurity as much as it needs inequality? And so I ended up writing a piece for Logic called “The Insecurity Machine” that had a tech focus, because that was actually the raison d’être of the magazine. As that article wrapped up and went out into the world, I had this lingering sense that there was more to explore, and that it was a framework that I could apply to other realms, in addition to tech.
So, looking at basic material conditions, from housing and healthcare, to things like education to human psychology, I just felt like it was one of those pieces that could actually be expanded. Then the opportunity presented itself, when I was invited to give this year’s 2023 Massey Lectures in Canada. The challenge was, essentially, to write a short-ish book, in a matter of months, so that they could have copies on hand. And then I got to deliver the five chapters, or five lectures, in five Canadian cities. And I did that in September. So, it was one of these concepts that emerged out of two prompts or invitations. What I’m trying to show in the book is that insecurity is really central to the way that capitalism operates, and that we need to be rendered insecure, in order to be exploitable. And so I could use that as a lens to explore based on various social dilemmas. And it’s one of those concepts for me, it spans the personal, and the political, and the economic, and the emotional. And so I was able to sort of take it in all these different directions that I found pretty fun as a writer.
PM: And the book is fantastic. As you say, it’s not a totally tech-focused book. But there’s so much to delve into there. And I found it really great as well — obviously, being Canadian — but also knowing a whole lot about the States and writing about the States, often. The kind of interplay that happens in the book, and in that work, between concepts in Canada and things happening in Canada and relating them to the United States as well. I feel like I don’t see so much of that, and I’m sure because you need to relate it to a Canadian audience, because you were up here, but I’m also hoping that Americans pick it up and learn a bit more about things happening up this side of the world, as well.
AT: It’s my most Canadian book, for sure. And that was really, actually, part of the pleasure of writing it was knowing that I’d have these lecture stops where I’d literally be speaking to people in Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory. Or I’d speak to people in Halifax and wanting to make it resonant and relatable for those specific audiences, but also universal. And so a big chunk of it was excerpted in the New York Times when it came out, and my editor, after he read the book, was like: That’s really interesting, it does have a lot of Canada in it! [laughs]. But I think it’s a really important for Americans to learn more about Canada, and not just invoke it as this idealized place. So, there’s a rather long disquisition about the crisis of the public healthcare system, I think that that’s important.
But also, I did try to also pierce that veil of Canadian smugness throughout the book too and say: Crisis of indebtedness in the United States that I, Astra Taylor, have been organizing around. But guess what? It’s really bad in Canada, too. So hopefully, the lessons flow both ways. And then in terms of the tech stuff, I used to write a lot more explicitly about technology, ever since my first book, “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Culture and Power in The Digital Age.” It came out in 2014. And what I’ve done since then is try to not just silo tech, as its own thing, to just write explicitly about tech, but to show that it’s a facet of every aspect of our lives. Because it’s part of our work experiences, part of our education experience; it’s part of healthcare; it’s part of our social lives; it’s part of our romantic lives. And to just put it in there without cutting it off, or reifying it or pretending that it’s somehow separated from these other social fields.
PM: Well, you talk about tech, and how you’ve been writing about tech for a long time. This might surprise some listeners, maybe not. Maybe they’re familiar with “The People’s Platform.” Maybe not. I read the book a little bit after it was released, but I found it a really great one. But that year, as well, you were also writing with friend of the show Joanne McNeil, a piece in The Baffler called “The Dads of Tech,” I believe it was. And I feel like that was a time when Silicon Valley itself was still very idealized, and a lot of the reporting was still very positive on it. So I wonder what you were seeing in that moment that was making you look at this industry, or these technologies in a different way, then the public was still, largely, seeing them at that time?
AT: It’s interesting to think back to that moment. I mean, it’s almost hard, sitting here today in 2023, to remember just how over the top and utopian some of the rhetoric about the internet was, specifically about social media. And about the potential of these new tech companies to disrupt the old media monoliths, and get rid of middle men. So, there’s this whole idea of disintermediation that we as citizens — or as cultural producers, or just as amateurs in whatever field — would suddenly have this direct connection to one another, to our audiences, or to potential sources of income. And then it was going to be radically democratizing, and all of that. So I started going to a lot of these conferences or reading a lot of the tech books. And the basic analogy at the time was Napster: We’re going to Napster-ize everything; Napster-ize democracy! [laughs]. Napster-ize these other industries. And so the analogies came from the cultural field, and they were being extrapolated to the political and the social and the economic.
As somebody who is a cultural producer, and knows a lot of artists and knows a lot of musicians, I was like: Hold on, this isn’t happening. You know what we’ve got? We’ve got the old guard of Hollywood and the cable industry. And we’ve got this new corporate guard of Google and Facebook, and they’re not disintermediating anything. They’re just new mediators. So, we have double the gatekeepers, and they’re collaborating in lots of ways, and they’re engaging in vertical integration. What are you people talking about? But it did make me then wonder: Okay, well, what is salvageable here? And is the problem tech itself, or is it the underlying business model? And so what I tried to inject into the debate back then was just a bit more political economy. The problem is not technology — it’s economic incentives, and the business model structuring it, and the fact that so much of our technical experiences is actually funded, fundamentally, by advertising. Now we talk about surveillance capitalism is one way of describing that.
But the conversation was just so full of shit, man, and these people would get on stage and write these books, and they’d write the same book over and over, about how everything was changing for the better, because there were these new companies. And I was like: No, no, there’s a lot of continuity here. A lot of these debates are debates we’ve had before around other media. And ultimately, I was making a socialist case for state investment in culture, communications infrastructure as a public good. All the things that listeners of your show know really well and conversations that have advanced in really interesting ways. But it was a lot of debunking. So, the piece that you mentioned, “The Dads of Tech” that I wrote with Joanne is definitely one of the more fun things I’ve ever written, because it was just us lampooning the misogyny of the tech world. And I just have to say, every single guy we criticized in that piece got in touch with us —
PM: — No way! [laughs].
AT: They told us we were wrong! Silicon Valley billionaire investors, they read this article in The Baffler and got their feelings hurt over it, and had to reach out [both laugh].
PM: I love that. Because when you think of what so many of these powerful figures in Silicon Valley are into today, where they’ve been very radicalized, and they are increasingly embracing these right-wing politics. And the question is: Was this always there, or is this something new? And it’s like: They’ve always been these people.
AT: I will say, about two weeks ago, I was at a coffee shop in New York, and I looked up, and I realized at another table was one of the guys were most vicious about [both laugh]. Anyway, I think it’s a good piece. People should read it. It’s fun.
PM: Absolutely. I will include it in the show notes for people to go check out. Related to that, when we talk about tech, there has been a big recognition, especially in the past few years — even if it wasn’t so much on the radar or not, as many people were recognizing it in 2014 — there’s been a real wake up in the impact of the tech industry on the world that we’re inhabiting, and I feel like the recognition of how it propels insecurity has been a really important part of that. And that, of course, comes out in the Logic piece that you wrote, but also, the lectures that you prepared. What do you see in the way that these technologies are connected to these business models, that allows them to be used in this way?
AT: I actually think I can actually channel a bit of “The People’s Platform” here, because part of what I said at the introduction to that book is, we need to emphasize continuity as much as change. So in that book, I talk about how the old forces of consolidation, centralization, commercialism are still present. Those problems from the old media model are still present in the digital landscape, and that continuity is really essential. So in this book, “The Age of Insecurity,” it also takes that view of: Okay, what actually, within the kind of capitalist paradigm, has been consistent? And one of the analogies I make is between the Digital Revolution and the Enclosure Movement. So the Enclosure Movement — of course, again, your listeners will be familiar with the dawn of market society — the dawn of capitalism, as we know it.
For the period of many centuries, through thousands, and thousands of Acts of Parliament, millions of acres in England were enclosed. They were literally turned from once common fields and forests into privately owned property, enriching the landlord class. And this pushed people off of their homes, changed the mode of production, because people could no longer provide for themselves in their families through subsistence agriculture. So, people were made insecure, and as a result of that insecurity, had nothing but to sell but their labor. And this was really conscious. I mean, when you read the commentary from enclosures, they say this is their goal explicitly. And one of my favorite quotes in the book is a landlord saying: When you’re doing this enclosure business, and you’re putting up your fences and your hedges, don’t plant trees that bear fruit, because the idle will be tempted to eat for free. And so capitalism begins with what I call the manufacturer of insecurity. So, that manufactured insecurity is there at the genesis because you don’t have people who have nothing to sell but their labor, unless you have insecurity first.
So, what I say explicitly in the book is the Enclosure Movement, that privatization, has been rebranded. It was rebranded as creative destruction in the 50s, and then it was rebranded as disruption, disintermediation. These tech buzzwords are really about keeping that engine of manufacturing insecurity going. And so now what enclosures have is just more digital tools in their arsenal. Workers can be tracked, delivery workers — it’s getting to be the holidays — thinking about all these people racing around delivering packages. But it’s radiologists. It’s white collar workers being tracked on their computers. I mean, these are the kinds of tools that these enclosures couldn’t even dreamed of them. But the continuity is essential. And I think this is part of the project of not fetishizing tech. It’s like: Okay, what’s really new here? Yeah, it’s old wine in a microchiped bottle. But let’s get real. The goals are the same; the power dynamics are actually really familiar. And that helps us resist the self-mythologizing. The guys do, the guys that Joanne and I attacked in our article, “The Dads of Tech.”
PM: I feel like what you’re describing there really speaks to how this industry and, I’m sure capitalism more generally, benefits from us not understanding those histories, and not understanding the connection between what’s happening now and what’s happening then, and the real through lines that exist that show how these are not novel things, when we talk about how surveillance is being rolled out in the workplace. Or how employers are using technologies against workers to disempower them and devalue their labor, these things happen again, and again, it’s just a new fresh coat of paint, a new fresh set of technologies that they’re deploying.
AT: A lot of work is done to obscure that history. I think part of the reframing I’m doing in these lectures is to say: Insecurity really is at the center of this, because when some of us who rail on about the economy day and night, we tend to emphasize some of its pathological consequences: a concentration of wealth and power, the obscenity that poverty exists in a world where there could be abundance. But I think this aspect of insecurity is really useful, because it helps us understand that it’s not just the disparities, it’s not just the fact that there are a couple of these billionaires — many of them tech billionaires — and people who are struggling to stay housed or stay fed. But the fact that even people who are managing to get ahead a bit, or quite a lot, feel like they can never rest. They feel perpetually insecure, and that is not an accident. Again, to go back to those enclosures: Why did they not want those hedges to bear fruit? Because they had a theory of human motivation, which is you have to keep people insecure, to keep them struggling, to keep them striving, to make them more controllable, to make them more efficient and pliable and docile workers, and that is also language that reverberates through the centuries into the present.
PM: Absolutely. I feel you can look at what Elon Musk says about workers in the United States being lazy and how Chinese workers work harder than them and how people doing remote work aren’t really doing work. These things stick around time and again. They just take a different form, sometimes they’re much more explicit and sound quite similar to what we were hearing long ago. Obviously, the concept of insecurity is one that people will have heard about, but if they think about narratives that we’ve been hearing from the political left or just in political discourse in recent years, what they’ve probably heard people talk about much more is inequality, and the growing gulf that exists between the rich and the poor. How does talking about insecurity reframe, or change some of those debates, and how does it make us think about the problems that we face in a different way?
AT: I think talking about inequality is really essential and it’s been such a core theme of my political work as an organizer with the Debt Collective, which is a union for debtors that I helped found in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. And in my writing, my writing about technology — a big part of “The People’s Platform” is that we are seeing that these technologies that people are cheering as democratizing, are actually accelerating concentration of attention and money in the hands of the people who own the platforms that we use every day. Inequality is really key — it’s also essential to my work on democracy, and inequality undermines the democratic project, the small ‘D’ democratic project, in big ways. But I think it needs to be supplemented with attention to insecurity, and that’s because inequality gives us a snapshot in time. Inequality says: Here are the gains captured by the 1%. Here’s how everybody else is suffering; look at the various income differentials. Here’s how deeply unequal this moment is.
Insecurity, I argue in the book, actually, it has two things that kind of supplement that. The first is insecurity actually always looks forward, it anticipates what’s coming. And that’s really important, because as human beings we live in time. And so I might be okay right now and go: Gosh, I’ve got a fridge full of food, that’s cool, and I actually have a place to live. But if I’m afraid I might lose my job, and so I won’t have that fridge full of food, and I might not be able to renew my lease, then I’m going to be insecure. That is an incredibly valid perspective for millions of millions of people, right now. This is central to the political debate that’s playing out in the United States right now, where there are all these economists who are like: But by these metrics, the economy is doing great. But in reality, people are like: My rent keeps going up. I don’t know if I’ll be able to live in a year!
PM: Take a look up from the spreadsheet!
AT: I say even that any insecurities have a point on the spreadsheet feel, and that’s really important, because one thing I’ve learned as an organizer is that economic issues are always emotional issues. Financial issues are always about your feelings. They try to tell us that these are separate realms, and they’re not. I think there needs to be a revolution of economic thought. Behavioral economics does not cut it. This is not about nudges — this is really about affect with an ‘A,’ and fear. And the right knows this. The right taps into people’s fears, taps into people’s insecurity, taps into people’s fear about losing status down the road, losing position. About what Barbara Ehrenreich, who is one of my favorite writers, and recently passed away. She’s the author of a book called “The Fear of Falling,” which is something she said really plagued the American professional middle class. And so insecurity is a really useful supplement. And, again, it is a heuristic that can help us understand people at different gradients of that inequality graph. Because in the United States today a simple medical emergency can push a middle class family into homelessness. Medical debt is the leading cause of foreclosure.
But even in a place like Canada — where there is a more robust social safety net, but a tattered one — people are increasingly anxious, especially because of the cost of housing, or the cost of groceries, or the fact that they don’t necessarily trust what remains of the welfare state will be there when they’re older and in need of more support. So, I just think it’s something that can help us understand the world and people’s emotions better. And that that can help us be better organizers, because ultimately, that is what I’m about. How do we not just diagnose the problem, but organize people to solve it? And inequality encourages us to look up and down. So, we look at Elon Musk, and we look at unhoused people, and that’s really important. I mean, it’s sick that we live in a world where that gulf exists, but I think insecurity can help us look sideways too and be like: Okay, we’re not exactly the same, but you’re afraid about what’s coming down the pike and so am I. Maybe we can build some solidarity together.
PM: You talk about how it causes you to look forward to what is coming, but part of the book, as well, is looking back to how we got to the point we are today. You talked about how manufacturing insecurity is really key to the capitalist project, but it feels like we used to be largely in a period where there was a bit more security. The welfare state was more secure, and there were more protections for people when they did fall down. And that had to be really destroyed in order for us to get to this point where we do feel such great insecurity in the present, I guess.
AT: It’s true. I mean, the one thing I am trying to do with this book is also rethink what security is. And security is a word that I don’t necessarily love — it’s a little tainted. And I think that’s very much for me relate to the fact that I came of age politically under the shadow of 9/11, where there was suddenly a lot of talk of national security and Homeland Security. And it’s not a word that the left really talks about that much these days. [Security] is a word more often invoked by the right. And to me, it conjures a lot of negative things, policing, militarization, border patrols, and all of that. Nevertheless, material security, the security of the welfare state, that kind of security is really important. And it’s important for left-wing people to talk about security in that register, and to acknowledge how important it is to people. I mean, the way we structure our economy under capitalism can make us more secure or less so. Obviously, there’s lots of problems with the mid-20th century welfare state. But it was a really important intervention, I mean, a really critical one.
One thing I learned that I wasn’t aware of and is something I sprinkle in there is that during the construction of that welfare state — and this is true in Canada, and in the US — talking about insecurity and security was really, really key. That’s how the architects of the welfare state, and how the movements, the labor movements, demanding the construction of that welfare state framed their intervention. They said: Insecurity is a plague on people in this world where we could live better. FDR went on and on about security. Obviously, we call the most famous welfare program that we know of is Social Security. And it’s a product of that history. It’s more evidence that, actually, it’s something that speaks to people. That folks were less mobilized by indications of inequality in the moment, than insecurity, because they just lost everything in the Great Depression.
They had just experienced a devastating World War. They felt this uncertainty that events be under control could bring, and the havoc that can be rocked on their families. And so they wanted security, they wanted stability, they wanted that ability to look forward. So, I think material security is really essential. And what I try to explore in the lectures a bit too, is then: Okay, but what does that do for us on that emotional level. And I look at a lot of empirical data and studies that have shown that when people have that baseline of material security, it increases tolerance, open mindedness, that it is positive, again, for small ‘D’ democracy in that it makes people less prone to anti-immigrant sentiment, authoritarian appeals. And so there’s all these personal and political benefits that come from the public provision of security. I think that’s really important for us to emphasize in this moment when authoritarian is on the rise again.
PM: Absolutely. It also makes it very clear, or really draws my attention, to how the tech industry, and the people in charge of it have used that insecurity against people. If you think about in the aftermath of 2008-2009, the really difficult period that people experienced then, how many people lost their homes, lost their jobs. And then of course, you had the tech industry coming in and saying: We’re empowering you; we’re giving you freedom by carving your work out of employment protections, and all this stuff through the gig economy. And how they have been able to do that time and again, by using the supposed possibility of technology for empowerment, to actually disempower and make people more insecure.
AT: One of the big ironies of corporate America is that they go on and on about entrepreneurial risk-taking, but they’re always foisting that on the workers — whether that is by actively undermining the welfare state or through creating gig economy conditions, or whatever. A few decades before it was just moving towards using contractors, and things like offshoring. But meanwhile, the corporate bottom line is insulated from risk. We saw that in 2020, at the start of the COVID pandemic, when there’s just massive intervention in the economy, much of it going to subsidize corporate America. So, that is definitely one of the dynamics that I’m pointing to here. The other thing is that their argument — maybe we could call it their ideology, again — goes back to that question of motivation. So, they actually say that by repealing that social safety net, by creating a dynamic, disrupted economy where we’re all entrepreneurs of the self, we’re all little LLCs on our own competing with each other, that we are being the best we can be.
Because if we were to invest in public provision in a robust welfare state, in material security, they say, then people get lazy. Then people will shirk. And so there’s been this rhetoric — again, going back to Enclosure Movement — that this is actually a sort of project of public morality, in addition to sort of market efficiency. That this makes us good and productive. And it’s just bullshit, right? Because there’s all sorts of evidence that people are motivated by all kinds of other things, the desire to cooperate, the desire to create, the desire to learn, the desire to take care of each other. And that actually, that kind of desperation is inefficient for lots of reasons. But I think that part is there, too, in the rhetoric. They’re not just like: Oh, we want to make a lot of money. They’re like: And it’s good; you will be better people as a result of us destroying your financial lives, because you’ll be scrambling, and virtuous.
PM: It makes me think of the general narrative of Silicon Valley around work, that you need to work long hours, and you need to be willing to, give yourself to the job, and not have much of a personal life. Because otherwise, you’re not going to get ahead in the kind of the meritocratic narratives that they have. But, as you wrote about many years ago, the people who tend to succeed in this industry are the people who already have kind of a leg up.
AT: One hundred percent. Or they succeed because they’ve done something that doesn’t necessarily benefit humanity, but it’s like a hack, or they managed to get sort of sold, and absorbed by a bigger company at the right moment. Or because they privatized the commons — they engage in some act of taking something that was collectively built. I mean, the internet itself, obviously, is the creature of immense public investment, and they privatized some corner of it. This is, I think, just one of these old stories that we’re just going to have to be constantly debunking. And for me, as an organizer and as a writer, I’m very much about cultivating a sense of entitlement among ordinary people. And it’s like: No, you’re actually just entitled to public care, to food, clothing, shelter, the basic necessities of life, and society will not crumble. To go back to the example of billionaires, I mean, what do billionaires often live off? It’s called unearned income. It’s just the fruits of their investment; they’re not out there living from the sweat of their brow. So, it’s always, what works for me doesn’t work for thee, and that incredible hypocrisy.
But security is, I think there’d just be lots of salutatory effects, and what I also try to go into in the lectures, too, is the fact that according to international human rights law, we actually have a right to, we have a robust right to material security, and security is written into many different state constitutions. And I found that really interesting, as an organizer, that it’s not a right that we often invoke on the left. Again, I think the left doesn’t talk about security very much, but it’s there on some pages, and it’s something that we could lay claim to. There’s some potential power in that, and we should be more vocal about the fact that this kind of material security is something we’re entitled to, and then it would actually, and to go further than just say: Well, hold on, it’s not going to be a bad thing for society, but to say, no, it’s going to be a good thing. Because, again, it’s going to make us healthier, it’s going to give us time to participate politically, and because, again, empirical research shows it makes people more tolerant, more open minded, less authoritarian, and less afraid. And those are consequences that we should be very keen to see manifest as reality.
PM: Absolutely. I feel like this is probably a bit more in the Canadian wheelhouse sort of a thing. Obviously, it’s a book that deals a lot with Canada, and I found that fascinating. But when you wrote about how the judges interpreting the Canadian Constitution tend to focus on the negative freedoms that Canadians have, but often not enforcing the positive freedoms, or not wanting to kind of bring that into the legal framework or ruling on it. I guess, I found that really fascinating and hadn’t realized that necessarily.
AT: Again, I got really into Canadian constitutional law, and it’s one of the cool things about podcasting, too, right? Because you have this excuse to contact people and be like: Hey, do you want to chat for an hour and I’ll just pick your brain and learn from you? But again, this right to security is found in many domestic constitutions. It’s very explicit in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is directly inspired by the UN Declaration of Human Rights — the lead author of which was actually a socialist Canadian, this guy, John Humphrey, who is a character I’m very fond of. So, he was an instrumental player in helping to insert the left-wing social movements to help construct the Canadian welfare state. Then he goes and he’s a very progressive influence on the United Declaration of Human Rights, very inspired by Latin American socialist countries, and by the Canadian example. He makes sure that woven into the Universal Declaration, are positive and negative rights meaning, so the right to be protected from a tyrannical state, but also the right to the things we need to survive.
So the right to have a speedy trial, to not be illegally detained, those are these kind of negative rights, even to free speech, to not have your speech be censored. What we might think of as civil liberties, but then the right to housing and health care, labor union, well-remunerated works, security in old age and disability. Those are the positive rights, and those are positive rights to security, specifically. Fast forward to the early 80s, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And there’s Section Seven of the charter and it says that: Canadians have a right to security of the person. That’s the way it’s phrased. And there’s an ongoing, really interesting legal debate over what the hell that means. Because it’s not like laws are ever just self evident. They’re also the terrain of political struggle. There have been Justices and lots of lawyers and lots of activists saying: This means that robust positive right to security, right to housing, right to welfare benefits, right to health care. And because those are actually rights Canadians do not have.
Americans think Canada is the land of the welfare state — very romanticized. And it does have a more robust welfare state, and tradition of welfarism. But Canadians as people have a right to remarkably little in that positive sense, unless we can manage to rest the Section Seven right and imbue it with a deeper meaning. And again, this isn’t a pie in the sky, or ridiculous interpretations. It’s an interpretation a lot of legal scholars and Justices agree with, but it just goes against the market grain of our society at the moment. And so I wanted to take some time in the talks and talk about some of the litigation that has tried to push the envelope and say: A right to security should mean a right to healthcare, it should mean a right to housing. So over the years, for example, activists, and activist lawyers have managed to get the right to security to mean the right to be in a tent if there are no shelter beds available. So, they pushed it to mean that, but they haven’t quite pushed to the point where it means the right to housing.
Youth climate litigants — so, these kids who are suing governments around the world — have been engaging in some interesting legal arguments saying that a Section Seven right to security should be in the right to habitable environment. What is security if the climate is on fire? And they’re making really interesting inroads — I mean, they haven’t won. But in one recent decision, a judge said: Hey, they’re making some credible points here. Just enough to give them kind of grounds for an appeal. I think it’s really important to always have your eye on: Well, what are the struggles trying to make real these ideas you’re promoting? And when you look, there’s actually quite a lot of inspiring stuff happening. But I just think it’s like: Yeah, we should be like: We have a frickin’ right to security, and that means the welfare state. But also, in this larger context, I think the environment is also really important. But it’s something that a lot of Canadians don’t know or think about, and certainly a lot of us aren’t thinking about the Declaration of Human Rights. But that’s the thing with rights, they’re on the page, but we have to fight to make them real. That’s just how it always goes.
PM: Absolutely. I feel like one of the reasons that it really stood out to me is because I feel like in Canada, if you’re aware of it, people look to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and say: This has had a really positive impact and getting our courts and our Supreme Courts to make decisions that have been positive, that have maybe pushed the actual political system andour governments to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t have — in contrast to how many people often see the US Supreme Court as this conservative, backward influence, especially under the current judges that are there. So, I felt like it added some nuance to that discussion.
AT: Again, the US is a low bar. I feel like if I could just say one thing about Canadians, I’d like: Never compare yourself to the US! But it’s true that the US Supreme Court has become this bulwark of reaction captured by these six ultra-conservative judges. But it’s also just the American political system is full of these veto points that make progressive reform really, really, really hard. Whereas the Canadian jurisprudence has more openings and this is why, I think, this is an interesting frontier to push even further. I’m conscious of the originalist — which is bullshit in the US, it’s not an originalist interpretation — but this idea that, this fantasy, we should hew to what the wise Founding Fathers thought about everything. In Canada, there’s this doctrine called the Living Tree Doctrine, which is that the Constitution should branch and grow and change. And that’s a beautiful image and something people shouldn’t take for granted, as someone who straddles both worlds. I’m like: It can get so bad, grow that tree.
PM: Absolutely. I feel like somewhat related to this is a discussion that you have in the book around insurance. And I feel like when we think about insurance today, it’s often this thing that I have to spend money on that costs way too much and doesn’t deliver nearly the benefits that I think I should receive from it. But that how, when the idea of insurance was new, it was it was quite a radical thing provided by the State to give you the type of security that we’re talking about. Can you talk to us a bit about the origins of that, and how it’s been transformed, and whether it can be taken back?
AT: So, you have to write five chapters for this, because there’s five lectures. And when I got to the fifth lecture, I was like: Okay, well, what, what am I going to write about? And I had this one idea that I’ve been wanting to write for so long about insurance. It’s really fascinating, but I just feel even saying that sounds so boring. I felt that it was risky. Like am I going to get up and give a lecture to a thousand people and be like: Hello, people, I’m talking about insurance today? Precisely because it has such a bad connotation. I mean, I was just picking out what horrible online marketplace insurance plan I want for 2024. And I don’t want it. It’s terrible, the deductibles is like $9,000! It’s a nightmare. But the word insurance once had a really radical reign in the early 1900s, and late 1800s, as people started to fight for workers compensation programs, and other schemes. The idea of social insurance was transformative. It’s the idea of pooling risk as a society. Really at the heart of the question of insurance is: What is risk? How do we share it? Who is culpable? Or is nobody culpable?
Social insurance didn’t really begin with these worker compensation schemes, and it was always the worker’s fault, because the bosses had all the power. So, if something went wrong, it was on the employee and there were these societies that, where workers attempted to pool risk and take care of each other, take care of widows, take care of families that had fallen on hard times. But ultimately saying: What you have to do before this can become a public program is actually reconceptualize risk, reconceptualize accidents, as something that just happens, that is sort of statistically unavoidable. It’s not really on the shoulders of one individual person. And then only when you have that paradigm shift to saying: Actually, this isn’t really one person and their punishment, this is just inevitable, when you have industrial production, bad stuff is going to happen, we should try to mitigate against it. But also we should protect those who fall or wound themselves or something like that. Only then can you start implementing these programs.
So, this idea of pooling risk is really powerful, and it relates to insecurity, because at the heart of that is like: We’re all insecure, we could all be the person who falls, who cuts themselves, who is in a car accident, who gets an illness. And so let’s take care of each other, let’s create these insurance programs. And so I think there’s just something really sort of poignant in that image. And we forget we were so acclimated to conceiving of risk in that way. It’s something kind of impersonal, that I don’t think we appreciate necessarily, what a leap it was, and how much work went into starting those programs.
But then, of course prevention is a better approach, and there are all sorts of ways to prevent workplace accidents by safety measures by not overworking people by not rushing them. Maybe by using digital trackers or whatever it is, that’s causing people to feel harried. We can prevent a whole lot of climate disasters by reining in fossil fuels. That’s something I write about at length in that chapter two is just the paradoxical role of the modern insurance industry in climate change. The insurance sector is enormous, they are sitting on trillions of dollars of assets. These are assets that they pulled ostensibly to pay out claims, but guess what a lot of it is invested in fossil fuel infrastructure. So they are paradoxically literally invested in the things that they’re going to be paying more claims on down the road. That right there is a parable about the pathology of treating insurance as a private good instead of as a commons, or as a public good. Which is one of the core things at the heart of that chapter is like: Is risk something that is privatized? Or is it something that we approach communally?
PM: I thought it was just another one of those really good illustrations of how much things have been eroded over such a long period of time, that we see insurance — which is this thing that should be about providing us security — as just another way to rip us off and take money out of our pockets and stuff like that.
AT: Well, we see it that way because that’s what it is a lot of the time.
AT: It’s like that perceptions, not wrong, but if we are stuck in it. If we go like: Ugh, insurance, I fucking hate my insurers. And then we’re actually not thinking about what it would mean to pull risk in a socially productive and caring way. In that chapter, I try to bring it to life by telling the story of Kafka, the novelist, who we all know is a brilliant writer and artist, and he was. But during his lifetime, he was mostly known as an industrial reformer. And I mean, he was really appreciated as such, because he basically worked as a cog in the machine of the workmen’s comp office of Bohemia, or something. It’s one of the early Workers Compensation Programs, and his mission at the job was to stand up for workers as much as he could. And he wrote all of these very, very dull, but detailed papers, about the mistreatment of workers, and how the working conditions precipitated the accidents.
He even designed machinery that would protect worker’s hands, more than the machines that were being used. So, he actually did some work that scholars actually say saved lives during his day. And as much as he’s famous for having hated his job — when we think of Kafka, we’re like: Oh, yeah, he hated his job, and he just wanted to be able to write. But he actually was really fascinated by insurance, because he saw the social implications and cared about them. He was just up against the monolith. He was up against bosses that were basically determined to blame the worker at all costs, and by a State that was deeply resistant to the idea of standing up for poor people. So, Kafka is a fascinating guy, for sure. But his interest in an investment in social insurance just endears me to him all the more.
PM: It was one of those stories that really fascinated me, when I was reading the book, one of many. I want to pivot back to something that we were talking about earlier, obviously, you brought up “The People’s Platform,” and we were talking about technology, there’s a lot of discussion today around the role that social platforms, social media plays in making people feel more insecure in their lives. I wonder how you reflect on the impact that that has had on people?
AT: That’s a big question. I’m curious what you think, because I feel like you’re more in the discussions and probably in the data than I am right now. I quote some studies in passing in the book about the detrimental effects of social media, particularly on young people and on old people. For younger people’s self-esteem, just how quick these platforms are to show them harmful content — literally content that is encouraging self-starvation and self-harm, and even suicide. And then older folks who are often pushed down these conspiratorial wormholes, who seem to lack the skills to decipher what’s credible information from what’s a scam. There’s no doubt that these social media platforms, that part of their business model is assaulting our self esteem, but again, that’s not new. That’s what advertising has been doing for decades, and so I think this lens of continuity is really helpful.
This is why going back to 2011, 2012, 2013, when I was writing “The People’s Platform,” why I was like: You really think that we’re going to have a revolution here, when the business model of these platforms is advertising? Because by design, an ad assaults your self-esteem, or makes you feel like you lack something. And I say in the opening lecture of this book: No advertisement will ever tell you that you’re okay, and that it’s the world that needs changing. No, it’s always going to tell you that you’re not enough or to stay cool, you’ve got to buy this. Or to stay young, you have to take this pill or whatever. It’s banal to say it, but also, they wouldn’t spend literally trillions of dollars a year on this shit if it didn’t kind of work. If it doesn’t work, it’s not a science, and we can all laugh at the bad ads we get and how inappropriate they are. But bring me a person who hasn’t bought something that they were targeted by, show me someone.
PM: Oh, totally. I’m sure it happens all the time.
AT: This is where I’m not ahead of the curve, or the conversation on this thread. I just think it’s worrying and I see it myself. I see my own attention span diminishing, my addiction to my devices increasing, despite my awareness of it. And again, this is what progressive-tech critics have been saying this whole time. It’s like: Yeah, these are addictive by design, it shouldn’t be just up to us to impose our habits of self-control and our digital Sabbaths, and things like that. In the section where I am talking about social media and its effects on people’s psychology and self-esteem, part of what’s maddening about these dynamics is the more damaged people are by these devices and these platforms or just by consumer culture in general, the more a market opens up to ostensibly solve some of these problems. And so into this gaping hole of despair flows the wellness industry, or self-care or self-help, which promises people some solace.
So that’s one of the ingenious things about capitalism — harms create new markets. And so actually, no, I never read self-help books, but I read a few writing this book, because I was like: I’m talking about insecurity and psychology and people’s feelings. And most striking to me is quite a few popular authors talk about people’s sense of lack, or of never having enough, or their desire to do things like to be creative, to not live to work, but to work to live. But they just never take that political step. The problem is always you when it’s like: No, the problem is capitalism [laughs]. You just can’t self-care or meditate or exfoliate, or breathe your way out of the crisis. But of course, these books never take that extra step, because that would be to sort of undermines the conditions of their own success.
PM: I think the connections to, again, the fact that this sort of stuff has been going on for a long time, it’s just now happening in a different way, through the tools that are available to these companies and to the system, in order to continue pushing us in this direction, continue to making us feel terrible, so that we buy things and all that. It’s not much of a surprise, I guess. In the book, one of the things that you talk about when you start to get more toward how we address these sorts of issues is the concept of decentralization. Obviously, this is discussed in a much broader remit than just technology in the way that we would understand it. But this is a concept that is very much of interest to people in the technology space. And I feel like there are divided opinions on as well, where, in some circles, there’s a view that: If we just have more decentralized technology, everything will be better. And then there’s also the way that companies have taken advantage of decentralization to recenter their power structures and stuff. So I wonder how you see decentralization helping in this way, and if you also have concerns about how it can be co-opted by powerful institutions that exist out there already.
AT: This is a tricky thing. I don’t think that there’s a one size fits all answer, because you can have anti-democratic versions of decentralization and disempowering versions, and you can have democratic and empowering versions of centralization. And so, again, I think we have to look to the context and have to look to the political agenda and the economic paradigms. I also think they’re not necessarily opposed. You could have a situation where there’s centralized funding going into communities, where communities have democratic determination over what cooperative businesses they want to start or something like that. I’m just pulling an example out of the ether, but it’s like whether centralized fundings streams and a mechanism for ensuring equality, and conditions on where the funding goes, but there’s still community determination, room for experimentation, room for democratic deliberation.
So, it’s a bit of a false binary, but I do think we have to be really alert, especially in the States with its weird Federalist system and its fetishization for state power, states rights, local control, local school boards, hijacked by Moms for Liberty. The right has used a project of devolving power to the states and to the local level to pursue a right-wing agenda. Because it was the federal government that was often trying to pursue things like the correct application of civil rights law. I just think it’s really tricky, and that we actually have to be more precise about what it is we’re talking about. Again, I obviously like the word democracy, I like experimentation. I’m not sure I’m ready to reclaim the word innovation, but I don’t know, in theory, maybe we should. But we have to do it within a framework that pursues equity and security and justice. I just don’t think one category alone — oh, centralization or decentralization — gets us there. I think it has to be more nuanced than that. I guess I’m inclined to think there’s basic things that we need as human beings, that should be guaranteed by a central authority, meaning in this case, the federal government. We have a right to health care.
But I don’t think that’s irreconcilable with some level of community control. Or, for example, you have public health care, and you obviously have healthcare workers. Shouldn’t doctors and the community have some say in how a local hospital is run? So again, an element of decentralization mixed with central funding where funding is equitably distributed, based on need, and not just the ability to pay. So, I think it’s interesting. This gets a little bit into the terrain of a book I have coming out in March. It’s on solidarity, where there’s a chapter where we talk about what a solidarity state might look like so something beyond the welfare state. And a solidarity state would create feedback loops that encourage solidarity and I think some element of decentralization or democratization is key to this because we want citizens to feel invested in public goods. The welfare state dispenses with services from on high, on a charitable model. So, it’s like the State giveth, so then the State can taketh away. A solidarity state would be like: This is actually public, as in it belongs to you — the public — be invested in it, and thus helped protect it. I think breaking that binary would be essential to that project.
PM: I love that, and I love your recognition of decentralization, as well, and the nuance that is inherent in it and looking at where power is and how decentralization doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re taking power away from the forces that we wouldn’t want to have it.
AT: But there’s also resilience in decentralization; there can be experiment in decentralization. It’s just not to make a fetish of anything. Decentralization under really unequal circumstances is bad. You could argue, for example, that American K-12 public schools are decentralized. The funding is based on local property tax, then there are these local school boards. Nobody, I think, who’s got an objective analysis would call American public education, democratic. To me, it could use a lot more centralization. We should equalize funding per student. I’d like to see some controls implemented there. I just I think it’s one of those debates that just needs to be much more context dependent, and example dependent — like, what are we talking about?
PM: Totally, I think it makes perfect sense. And to wrap up our conversation, we’ve been talking a lot about the insecurities, the way that this works in favor of capitalism and the system and how it really harms a lot of people out into the world. After doing all of this research, putting these lectures in this book together, what have you learned about the best ways that you think that we combat this and, increase the good kind of security that we want for people?
AT: Maybe I’ll end by actually going back to the beginning of the book, where I contrast what I call manufactured insecurity — which is the insecurity we’ve talked about in this interview — with what I call existential insecurity. So, I think that there’s a case to be made that we are just inherently insecure and a byproduct of being mortal, vulnerable creatures who are dependent on care throughout our lives. We are born as tiny, helpless infants, and if we are lucky to live long enough, we’re pretty helpless at the end of our lives as well. And the fact is, we need care throughout our lives, we’re all dependent on infrastructure and communities and supply-chains that are so far beyond our own, not just control, but we can’t even conceptualize them. They’re so massive and integrated at this moment. So, that existential insecurity is there. It’s something that I think we will never escape, and the manufactured insecurity is layered on top of it, that I think we can mitigate and reduce, to a dramatic degree.
So part of my exit, I guess, part of my argument for how we get out of some of the messes we’re in and change things, so that we have more of that sort of material, political security that that we’re talking about, is that we actually have to face our vulnerability. And we have to say: Okay, we’re all insecure. Therefore, we need each other, and let’s band together to fight for a world that meets our basic needs. And at the heart of the word insecurity, and also the word security, is etymologically, if you go back to the Latin, is the word cura, which actually means care. And so I think that recognition that we’re all insecure, that we all need care can be the basis for a politics of solidarity, or recognition that we’re interdependent that we, again, are mutually vulnerable. And a basis for this reimagining what security can be — security as not just something that is defensive, militaristic, market driven, but that is collaborative and caring, and sustainable.
Ultimately, those are just nice words, but we need to fucking organize to do it! This is another big theme of the book. I mean, I learned a lot writing the book, I learned about Canadian legal systems, and I learned about the enclosure movement. I learned about Kafka and I learned about this stuff. But when I was actually out on the road giving the lectures, and then there would be a 45 minute Q&A, and every Q&A was just like: What do we do? And what I felt was people know that we’re facing a bunch of shit right now, that there are intersecting crises. They don’t need to be convinced of that, but what they don’t really know is what to do about it, because it’s not like they learn organizing 101 in high school or college.
Unless they’re lucky enough to be in a labor union at the job — and a good labor union at that — or maybe someone who’s just hyper-politically engaged, or maybe one of the tiny percentile of people who is in a tenant’s union, they don’t have much first-hand experience of organizing. And so what I came away with from his lectures, each Q&A almost became a symposium on organizing. I felt a lot of appetite for actually trying to do something to improve things. So, that was actually just a really heartening experience. Because by the end, I was like: I’m not really convincing you people of anything, we’re actually on to the really hard question, which is: What are the next steps that we take together, so that we can build the world that we all deserve, and are entitled to?
PM: Exactly, and that world requires organizing, not just new technologies delivered to us by some big tech companies as they would want us to believe. Astra, it’s been great to speak with you. We’ll all be looking forward to your new book coming in March, I’m sure. But thanks so much for taking the time. It’s been great.
AT: It’s been really, really, really fun! Thanks so much for having me.