Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Simply Neoliberalism, Or, the Algorithms of the Natural.

In Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice, Alissa Hamilton explores all the ways that industrial processes are incorporated into the mass production of orange juice. What are the industrial processes of orange juice, you may be asking. But think about it, oranges are really only in season a few months of the year, and yet, not from concentrate orange juice is available year round. And while there are ways to grow oranges out of season, orange juice is consumed at a much higher frequency than oranges, and it would be really hard to grow all those oranges year around. If it is January, and you live in Minnesota, you can go to any grocery store and get Simply Orange orange juice. What makes that possible? From Hamilton:

The technology of choice at the moment is aseptic storage, which involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so it doesn’t oxidize in the million gallon tanks in which it can be kept for upwards of a year. When the juice is stripped of oxygen it is also stripped of flavor providing chemicals. Juice companies therefore hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that formulate perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein, to engineer flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. Flavor packs aren’t listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature. The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor. Mexicans and Brazilians have a different palate. Flavor packs fabricated for juice geared to these markets therefore highlight different chemicals, the decanals say, or terpene compounds such as valencine. The formulas vary to give a brand’s trademark taste. If you’re discerning you may have noticed Minute Maid has a candy like orange flavor. That’s largely due to the flavor pack Coca-Cola has chosen for it.

Got it? You take the orange juice, put it in tanks without oxygen, and then reconstitute the flavor later. Actually, that makes it sound more straightforward than it actually is, because you have to take into account demand from all over the place, and figure out issues of hurricanes and freezes, and all sorts of other variables. In order to do this, Coca-Cola, which makes both Simply Orange and Minute Maid, has created complex algorithms for their juice business, as reported here. "“We basically built a flight simulator for our juice business,” says Doug Bippert, Coke’s vice president of business acceleration." Because, it seems, vice president of business acceleration is totally a thing. The algorithms and storage vats are all attempts to "take Mother Nature and standardize it,” says Jim Horrisberger, director of procurement at Coke’s huge Auburndale (Fla.) juice packaging plant. [...] Bob Cross, architect of Coke’s juice model, also built the model Delta Air Lines uses to maximize its revenue per mile flown. Orange juice, says Cross, “is definitely one of the most complex applications of business analytics. It requires analyzing up to 1 quintillion decision variables to consistently deliver the optimal blend, despite the whims of Mother Nature.”" All of this resulted in a writer at the Chicagoist to use the phrase, "all-natural orange juice experience, free of algorithms" non-ironically.

So, why all this talk of orange juice? Mostly because as a capitalist product goes, it is one of the ones most identified with its naturalness, its simpleness (as in, Simply Orange). The label of not from concentrate was itself used a marketing gimmick to single the orange juice as being fresher, more natural, more authentic. We can think here that neoliberalism operates as a type of craft or sorcery that works by transforming the constructed and arbitrary into the natural and the essential.  By craft here, I am mostly thinking of the excellent work of Karen and Barbara Fields on Racecraft. Under the Fields, racecraft functions by taking racism (the structure of discrimination and violence), and naturalizing it into race. And in the same way for sorcery I am thinking of Pignarre and Stengers' Capitalist Sorcery, which reveal the ways that capitalism produces infernal alternatives for anyone who seeks to oppose neoliberalism. The artificial becomes natural, and the natural becomes inevitable, maybe even eternal.

At the same time I was making these points on facebook, Robin James and Leigh Johnson posted about neoliberalism and algorithms.  Over at Cyborgology, James argues that "As an ideology, “neoliberalism” is a very specific epistemology/ontology (or, more precisely, it’s an ideology in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology): neoliberals think everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized capitalist market.[...] The object of neoliberal economic analysis is the “calculation” of the program, protocol, indeed, the algorithm that makes apparently incoherent choices cohere into a model that can then be used to predict that individual’s future choices. Economic analysis finds the signal in the noise." Under this epistemontology it makes sense for our vice-president of business acceleration to hire the person that optimized Delta flight revenues in order to make orange juice. And over at NewApps (and actually, make sure you read the comments), Johnson expands on James by arguing:
Perhaps the single most important proposition in modern capitalist economic theory, inherited from Adam Smith, is that competitive markets do a good job of allocating resources, that such markets channel individuals' self-interest toward the collective good as if directed by an "invisible hand."  (I won't detail the manner in which such a proposition qualifies as "onto-theological" here, partly because there simply isn't room to do so, but mostly because I think it is self-evident.) [...] One of the problems with neoliberalism's particular ("invisible hand") iteration of onto-theological prejudice-- and this is something that James' account of the neoliberal "algorithmic modelling" fetish made more clear to me-- is that it effectively blinds itself to the manner in which it not only does, but must, conflate the Hand-that-Guides with the hand(s)-that-are-guided.  When synchronicity or harmony is absent, when dissonance is resonant, when the aleatory interrupts or real human freedom (s'il y en a) insists-- that is to say, when the Invisible Hand is not only non-apparent but also non-existent-- neoliberalism's epistemonto(theo)logical commitments force neoliberals to, quite literally, phish or cut bait.  And what is phishing, after all, but the manufacturing of an Invisible Hand?

This is all very important, because no matter how much it is clear that the algorithm is produced (and look again at the earlier quotations on orange juice, in which two different people talk in terms of opposing the algorithm to Mother Nature, and therefore one assumes the natural), and no matter how much violence is marshaled to make these algorithms work, they are always naturalized. As Bruno Latour has argued (and he is not the first) we have witnessed a strange shift of first and second nature. First nature represented the stuff that is unchangeable, that is usually what we mean we say something is natural, or talk about the world. Second nature is that which is produced by us. But in our era of global warming and the anthropocene, it is clear that the unchangeable first nature of the world is really second nature, something we can produce. Meanwhile, our economic systems, those things we clearly produce, have increasingly become seen as first nature, and inherently natural and unchangeable. And the results of this are clear and devastating. So much so that Fredric Jameson's now famous quip "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism," came first as farce, then as tragedy.

But I think the chicagoist line about algorithm free shows another fear. In the face of the deterritorialization of global capitalism, with its simulacrums and appeals to nature, has arisen a relatively conservative response that argues for the local, for the slow, for the authentic, for the non-calculative. In other words, there are those against the artificial, but in favor of something they see as truly natural  and algorithm free. Anyone who has been reading my blog knows that I do not think that is the way out (see especially here and here, and make sure to read my brother's more critical take on the calculative here). It is a bit like Heidegger's critique of the standing reserve. I am sympathetic, entirely. But his alternative reeks of agrarian fascism. Instead, I believe we should engage in a different craft and sorcery. Not one that turns the artificial into the natural, but one that instead seeks to undermine the narratives of nature while producing a new world.

EDIT: I was unclear in that last paragraph (as both Leigh Johnson and DMF made clear). I am not saying that it is conservatives who support the local, etc, but that it is a conservative ideology. And there are, of course, very conservative advocates of the local and the non-calculative, such as Joel Salatin, who is overtly xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, etc (he is the owner of polyface farms, and was made famous as a sort of hero of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma). But in addition to the Joel Salatins of the world, I am lumping in certain proponents of locavorism, and certain Heideggerians.

What I should have been clearer about is that I have no problem with the desire of the local, or the slow, or whatever from a tactical standpoint. I usually buy a share in Community Supported Agriculture wherever I live, I usually think that putting your money in a local credit union rather than a large bank is a good idea, I almost always buy beer from local or regional microbreweries when traveling, etc. In an era of globalized capitalism, creating local alternatives can be a real form of resistance. My problem is when moved to the level of strategy or a vision. When the advocacy is for a world of nothing but the local, the slow, the authentic, the non-caclculative, that is when I see a creeping conservative ideology.