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What Happened: October 14, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Amazon’s big con; Household savings evaporate; The age of biopolitics

The Scroll
October 14, 2021


The Big Story

Amazon ripped off proprietary data from businesses using its platform to sell goods and used it to manipulate search results in favor of Amazon products, according to statements made by the company’s own employees. A Reuters investigation based on internal Amazon documents shows not only that the company engaged in market manipulation but also that these practices were approved by multiple executives. Thousands of pages of internal planning documents and emails reviewed by Reuters show how Amazon’s private-brands team in India “secretly exploited internal data from to copy products sold by other companies, and then offered them on its platform. The employees also stoked sales of Amazon private-brand products by rigging Amazon’s search results so that the company’s products would appear ... in the first two or three … search results.”

By U.S. legal standards, a company that controls a market and rigs that marketplace in favor of its own products, as Amazon is accused of doing, meets the classic standard for monopoly behavior. In fact, Amazon has been accused of employing these same tactics in the domestic market, including by the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee’s Democratic leadership, which issued a more than 400-page report last year detailing the company’s anti-competitive behavior. This a matter of political as much as economic interest because Amazon is not only the largest retailer in the world, surpassing Walmart this year after the pandemic shifted more of the economy online, but also intimately connected to the U.S. government. Aside from all the money the company spends on direct lobbying efforts, Amazon’s data storage server business, AWS, functions as the “back end” for enormous quantities of government data.

Read it here:

Today’s Back Pages: Welcome to the Age of Biopolitics

The Rest

-Nearly 20% of U.S. households lost their entire financial savings over the course of the pandemic, according to a national poll of 3,616 adults in the United States that was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The number was even higher among households earning less than $50,000 a year, 30% of which said they lost all their savings.

-Heating costs are going up along with everything else. A report Wednesday from the Energy Information Administration warns that households could see heating bills this winter increase by as much as 54% over last year. The most common heat source, natural gas, is expected to go up by 30%, while electricity will increase by an average of only 6%. Propane, which is used in about 5% of households, will see the biggest price jump, rising by 54%. Increases in heating costs vary by regions and are expected to be highest in the Midwest, which is facing a 45% increase from last year.

-A federal judge held jail officials in contempt on Wednesday for allegedly failing to provide medical care to a defendant accused of participating in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District blasted the “incompetence of jail officials” and said it was clear that “the civil rights of the defendant were violated by the D.C. Department of Corrections.” The defendant, who broke his wrist after entering jail, was scheduled for surgery in June but is still awaiting the procedure.

-A 37-year-old Danish man accused of killing five people in Norway in a bow-and-arrow attack was a convert to Islam. The Norwegian intelligence service has not yet declared an official motive but labeled the attack an “act of terror.”

-Was Jeopardy! peddling cholent misinformation?

Last night cholent was on @Jeopardy (yay) but I am I the only one that found the clue misleading and bothersome. Yes that pasuk prohibits lighting a fire but the separate prohibition of cooking is what directly necessitated cholent @missmayim

(🎥 elan kornblum on FB)

— jewboy media (@simmy_cohen) October 14, 2021

At 10:27 this morning, The Scroll’s intrepid Jeopardy! correspondent Armin Rosen sent a message alerting us that he was on the case: “America’s leading game show, hosted by the country’s most famous Orthodox Jewish woman, botches vital question of Jewish law … ” 

Indeed, what if it were really as bad as it sounded? There was only one man who could answer that question: Tablet’s expert on Jewish law, Menachem Butler. “Cholent doesn’t go on the stove, it goes in a crock-pot,” Butler told us. “If it does go on a stove, then it would have to go on a sheet of metal between the pot and the stove, thus removing the ‘on the stove’ category. Ao, thus, it doesn’t go ‘on the stove in halakhah.’” Then Butler really laid down the law: “This is what happens when Ben Shapiro and Mayim Bialik are hailed as religious experts.”

It looked like we had cracked the case, but then, at 11:33 a.m., Rosen dug this up:

Jeopardy is right, the question was what’s banned in Exodus 35:3

— . (@brandonfwalker) October 14, 2021

So it turns out the clue was about the specific verse in Exodus, which actually does have to do with being prohibited from making fire. But Rosen won’t let it rest until he feels justice has been done. He sends a final message, this time by telegram:

That’s not the *exact* prohibition that makes cholent such an attractive Shabbat dish; cooking *is* in fact banned on Shabbat. More importantly, since when are Jeopardy! clues predicated on knowledge of specific and fairly obscure Bible verses? By the game’s own spirit (and maybe also by its letter, though you’d need a Jeopardy! posek to know for sure … ), they’re wrong here.

-The pharmacy chain Walgreens says it will close five stores in San Francisco following a string of brazen daytime thefts—a number of which were captured on video—that the store says were carried out by organized shoplifting gangs. A 2014 state referendum reduced the penalty for theft of less than $950 to a misdemeanor, which critics say both encourage more shoplifting and disincentivized police enforcement. According to SFGate, “Walgreens has closed at least 10 stores in the city since the beginning of 2019.” Meanwhile, a San Francisco public official is taking the occasion to speculate that the rash of publicly verifiable thefts may be a ruse Walgreens is using to execute its business plan.

So is Walgreens closing stores because of theft or because of a pre-existing business plan to cut costs and increase profits by consolidating stores and shifting customers to online purchases? 3/4

— Dean Preston (@DeanPreston) October 13, 2021

The Back Pages

Welcome to the Age of Biopolitics

Today’s Back Pages on the rise of a new system of biopolitics comes from the Brooklyn-based writer Tom Syverson.

Eighteen months in, I remain astounded by the passion with which one is called to strenuously condemn—or militantly embrace—virus containment measures. It has already become the case that an individual’s attitude toward lockdowns or masking is likely a better indicator of political “type” than any other proxy we’d traditionally look to, such as income, education, or identity category. Indeed, earlier this year The New York Times found that vaccination practices correlate closely to partisan affiliation “even after accounting for income, race, and age demographics, population density, and a county’s infection and death rate.” While the COVID-19 pandemic has hardened partisan affiliations, it has simultaneously scrambled standard ideological positions. For example, many Progressives now openly champion stricter policing and border enforcement as long as it is justified in public health terms.

For the United States’ chattering and governing classes, the pandemic has been understood as an infuriating struggle between rational scientific truth and irrational emotional delusion. But efforts to depoliticize the debate ignore the essential public values at stake. Issues of freedom, responsibility, risk, control, mobility, the body, the masses, death, and working conditions are not mere matters of disease or science. They are unmistakably political questions.

Since March 2020, political leaders have undertaken an illusory project of total control over the virus. By extension, this meant control over its human hosts, both actual and potential, as well as the prioritization of biomedical discipline above traditional concerns of public safety, economics, or culture. For example, myopic focus on ambiguous COVID-19 mortality data has occurred alongside an unprecedented rise in homicides. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the national murder rate has now seen its largest single-year increase on record. In New York City, substantial increases in homicides, shootings, burglaries, and car thefts have been met with the city’s announcement that it will more aggressively enforce subway masking requirements.

Meanwhile, economic inequality has become cartoonishly, perhaps irreversibly, severe. Nearly $4 trillion disappeared from workers’ pockets, only to reappear in the coffers of billionaires. Once a central concern of Progressive movements, the quest for economic justice has been sidelined in favor of viral containment measures. Class politics has been marginalized due to the uncomfortable fact that lower-income people are less likely to be vaccinated. The poorest Americans—those making less than $25,000 per year—constitute 22% of all unvaccinated people in the United States.

Pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies have profited heartily, with Pfizer raking in $3.4 billion in revenue in the first three months of its vaccine rollout. Coronavirus testing remains a cash cow capable of generating over $1.3 billion in quarterly revenue, with hospitals charging up to $650 for a single $50 test. Lucrative new testing ventures continue to attract venture-capital interest on the expectation that testing requirements are here to stay.

The education and socialization of children, once of paramount concern, has taken a backseat to the primacy of strict biomedical discipline. Hair-trigger school closures and dysfunctional remote-learning environments have been a disaster for primary and secondary education. According to a study published by Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit focused on at-risk student populations, as many as 3 million students lost touch with their school system amid the pandemic, perhaps permanently. For students who remained in school, a McKinsey study estimates that K-12 students were left an average of five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. The impact was worse within African American and low-income schools, and these educational deficits are expected to translate into depressed income over these students’ lifetimes. Against this backdrop, 16 states continue to enforce mask mandates on students of various ages, despite the lack of evidence that masks and other disruptive ad-hoc containment measures have any measurable benefit in schools.

In the broadest sense, these changes are indicative of a new relationship between the state and its people that has been developing for decades, if not longer, but was accelerated by the pandemic, which also dramatically clarified its stakes. This new political consciousness is something that the 19th-century political meta-frameworks, such as liberalism or Marxism, are no longer capable of defining and understanding.

Liberalism is premised on seeing political subjects as rational, dignified, “free-thinking” individuals, capable of the robust deliberation and empirical observation necessary for self-governance. For the better part of the 20th century, its primary rival came from Marxism, which defined political subjects strictly in terms of their relation to commodity production. Whereas for liberals the political process was a matter of marshaling evidence and rational debate, the Marxian historical dialectic saw only class struggle between industrial objects, embodied in factory workers, and their vampiric overlords, the employer-capitalists.

But the conditions that gave meaning to these two movements have become obsolete. The consensus reality that served as the precondition for liberal deliberation has slipped through our fingers, perhaps for good. Social reality is now hopelessly fragmented and decentered, riven by pervasive doubt, conspiracy theory, and the collapse of epistemic consensus. This state of affairs was brought about by a confluence of factors quite specific to this era of political and economic history: mass media, information technology, and a decades-spanning crisis of trust in elite institutions. Meanwhile, though socialist ideas have enjoyed a superficial resurgence among activists, most leftists cannot admit that a political theory that sprung from the conditions of industrial commodity production has become an impotent anachronism. In today’s unreal political economy, class dynamics are no longer driven by the production and appropriation of surplus value. One’s relation to “the means of production” means little within an information economy ever more aestheticized, dematerialized, and fractally estranged from concrete value.

As technology accelerates and ever more work becomes cognitive and abstract rather than physical and immediate, a polis once composed of rational freethinkers or revolutionary workers has degraded into something more passive and dependent. Political leaders who would once have been accountable to the public they served now look down upon what they see as a permanent surplus population. President Biden implied as much when he argued in August that the pandemic is primarily driven not by a virus, but by unvaccinated people. The following month, Biden continued the paternalistic lecture by declaring, ominously, “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.” The Biden administration has continued to issue edicts and veiled threats even as the new president’s approval rating sinks to new lows and polling suggests that more than half of Americans don’t even expect him to run for a second term.

Somewhere along the line, the burden of justification shifted from those imposing extraordinary measures to those experiencing them. Public health dissenters are now forced to prove a negative and show that vaccines are absolutely ­not­ safe, or to establish conclusively the harms of masking children relative to the unproven benefits, before raising democratically legitimate concerns about the official line. In this way, the citizenry is reduced from being a collective that leaders feel compelled to serve, or at least placate, to a writhing mass of alienated biology that needs to be to be fed, monitored, and manipulated in whatever way best serves the overclass interest.

This new relationship between people and state has a precedent in modern political philosophy, in the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault argued that somewhere around the 18th century, the classical form of sovereignty gave way to modern “biopower.” Where classical sovereign power functioned negatively, marked by the privilege to extinguish and restrict life, biopower by contrast “exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” The sovereign was once the agency endowed with the final authority to order death; today, biopolitical authority has the power to order life.

The older model of political sovereignty used the overt violence of waging wars and executing criminals to exercise control over its subjects. Biopower operates through a decentralized but comprehensive web of medical institutions, regulatory agencies, and other bureaucratic mechanisms. Though this modern form of power is diffuse and may seem nonthreatening and even participatory, Foucault drew an explicit connection between the emergence of biopower and the most extreme state atrocity:

If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population.

Foucault noted that the rise of biopower was essential to the development of capitalism, providing the tools of discipline and standardization necessary to make humans efficient cogs in the machinery of capital. But today the situation may be even more grave, as the workers who were once essential to biopolitical capitalism lose even their bare economic utility.

As a result of these factors, we now have a system increasingly characterized by the distinction between inert human life-forms and their overclass of elite superintendents. Rather than accountable democratic representatives or traditionally exploitative business owners, human life is scrupulously managed by a detached mix of technocrats, pharmaceutical corporations, and the reality-shaping institutions of big tech and institutional media.

This shift is reflected in the dehumanizing vocabulary used to describe critics of virus-containment measures. Already, the rhetoric that equates vaccine skepticism with “literal murder” has made its way to the Oval Office. Speaking in July, President Biden said that the spread of vaccine skepticism on social media was tantamount to “killing people.” Liberal op-eds support criminally charging the vaccine-avoidant, while a disturbing number of medical professionals are experiencing “compassion fatigue” and suggesting that the unvaccinated are so subhuman as to be undeserving of medical care. Pop-culture figures such as Jimmy Kimmel joke nonchalantly about denying ICU beds to the unvaccinated. A prominent spokesman for the “Never Trump” right, David Frum, has argued that it’s possible that “Biden’s America”—here a proxy for vaccinated America—may be reaching its “breaking point.” It’s left to us to wonder what such a breaking point would look like in practice—perhaps the revocation of medical care from people disobeying state orders on how they treat their own bodies—and where would it end.

Understanding the biopolitical realignment and taking it seriously will be necessary if we are to navigate the perilous territory that we entered in March 2020, which we will continue to explore as a country. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben observed in Homo Sacer, his classic work expanding on Foucault’s ideas, the emergence of biopolitics helps explain the ease with which 20th-century parliamentary democracies turned into totalitarian states. Agamben observed:

[Once] politics had already turned into biopolitics … the only real question to be decided was which form of organization would be best suited to the task of assuring the care, control, and use of bare [biological] life. Once their fundamental referent becomes bare life, traditional political distinctions (such as those between Right and Left, liberalism and totalitarianism, private and public) lose their clarity and intelligibility and enter into a zone of indistinction.

The biopolitical state represents a break with the politics of the past. It is more intimate, demanding the right to assess and govern even our internal organs, yet at the same time more inhuman in its systematic disregard for the reason and autonomy of individuals. The biggest fantasy of all is that biopolitics can be rolled back in favor of the erstwhile values inaugurated by previous realignments. Our ability to adjust to the new biopolitical reality, to establish a new politics of the present unburdened by the anachronisms of left and right, will determine whether we create a worthwhile future or instead collapse into the nightmare we’ve been lurching toward.

Tom Syverson is a writer living Brooklyn. His writing on culture and politics has also appeared in Paste Magazine, The Bellows, Quartz, and Splice Today. His first book,
 Reality Squared: On Reality TV and Left Politics, was released earlier this year from Zer0 Books. Tom can be reached on Twitter.

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