Richard Telofski — Insidious Competition

Richard Telofski.  Insidious Competition:  The Battle for Meaning and the Corporate Image (iUniverse, 2010).

I’ve written here in the past about the new potential network culture presents for asymmetric warfare against the power of the corporation and the state, and in particular on how it dovetails with such things as “open mouth sabotage” and the “Streisand Effect” as a tool for labor struggle.  It’s the topic of the subsection “Networked Resistance, Netwar and Asymmetric Warfare Against Corporate Management,” in Chapter Three of The Homebrew Industrial Revolution:  A Low-Overhead Manifesto.  I developed the same theme in detail, as it relates specifically to labor issues, in my recent paper “Labor Struggle:  A Free Market Model” (Center for a Stateless Society, 2010).  The use of open-mouth tactics in asymmetric warfare against hierarchical organizations is a classic example of what John Robb calls “individual superempowerment.”

This kind of stuff is essentially what Telofski’s book is about:  the use of social media by disgruntled employees, dissident shareholders, antiglobalization activists, unions, and pissed-off consumers to ruin the public images of target companies.

Telofski’s subject matter overlaps almost perfectly with mine, yet seems to have been arrived at almost completely independently of the body of literature from which I worked.  I saw only one work cited, and that very briefly, from the vast corpus of work by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla at the Rand Corporation — and nothing at all by John Robb or Jeff Vail.  There’s nothing about Charles Kernaghan or Kathie Lee Gifford, nothing about the McLibel case or DeCSS uprising, and nothing about the Streisand Effect.

The phenomena Telofski describes are very much the same ones I’ve described:  “This insidious opponent has been created by the new communications environnment, social media, which grow more powerful every day.  No competitor like this has existed before.”  If the “superempowered individual” can, like Miami Vice‘s Sonny Crockett, “clear my desk of all my other cases and make your life a living hell,” and endanger the corporate image as “the basis upon which the company operates, …then truly all companies are at risk.”

The fascinating part of it is to see an analysis of open-mouth sabotage by such a brilliant commentator, an analysis which resembles mine in so many particulars, from an ideological perspective which might be fairly described as almost a 180-degree opposite of my own.  From my perspective, it’s almost as if Telofski said, in Lucifer’s words, “Evil, be thou my good.”

As I said in the above-linked article on open-mouth sabotage, and have said many times since:  “The twentieth century was the era of the large organization.  By the end of the twenty-first there won’t be enough of them left to bury.”  Of all the soldiers of fortune the large organization has fighting a rearguard action on its behalf, Telofski is probably among the very best.

Telofski’s Assessment:  The Threat to Corporate Power

If there’s one word I’d use to characterize Telofski’s perspective, I would call it “pragmatic.”  Or maybe “resigned.”  He accepts the prevailing anti-corporate sentiment in our culture, and the average worker’s and consumer’s antipathy toward the large corporation, with a large measure of resignation — but without inquiring too closely into the legitimacy of the reasons behind it.  He then proceeds to consider how corporations can best pursue their (in his view entirely legitimate) agenda of controlling public perception of their images.

But in his view, however much he’s resigned to the general public’s anti-corporate sentiment, it’s still erroneous.  The “‘business as devil’ theme” is a “good story,” a “myth,” that stands opposed to the much less exciting “facts.”  As Cool Hand Luke put it, “Them pore ole bosses need all the help they can get.”

Oddly enough, Telofski, in describing the approach (which he ascribes to Sonny Crocket of Miami Vice, but which is a classic description of Robb’s superempowered individual) of “clear[ing] my desk of all my other cases and mak[ing] your life a living hell,” mentions that it’s worked for him when companies “have treated me in a way that I perceived as less than fair.”  So apparently open-mouth sabotage is at least sometimes a Good Thing, and the targets deserve it.

And he tips his hat, in principle, to the possibility that this is at least a theoretical possibility.  A company can suffer at the hands of insidious competitors as the result of its own malfeasance.  In such cases, he recommends it clean up its act rather than try to spin its image.

If your company has performed improper behaviors only to find itself “insidiously competed with,” well, then your company needs to “fess up.”  Because by not doing so, the insidious competition will only grow and may reach a point at which abatement is impossible.

But if you work for a company that is among the majority of companies which are honest and law-abiding, then this book will be of interest to you.

As Telofski’s reference to the “majority” makes clear, it’s pretty obvious he views the large corporation and its “good name” as the victimized parties in most cases.  Such “trash talk,” he says, damages the “real company image.”

In reality, though, it’s the truth that does the real damage to the company image.  The trash talk is the real company image.  The stereotypical negative aspects of corporate culture, far from being cheap shots or exaggerations, are almost universally true.  Wherever you go, since the rise of the Michael Jensen model of cowboy management thirty years ago, you see the pointy-haired MBAs gutting human capital, stripping assets, and hollowing out long-term productive capabilities in order to massage the quarterly numbers and game their own bonuses and stock options.   The real wages of production workers have been flat for forty years while senior management compensation exploded into the stratosphere.  And the globe is dominated by large corporations thanks, not to “free trade” and the “free market,” but to massive collusion with the interventionist state:  massive subsidies, massive “intellectual property” protectionism, and overwhelming military force against any threat to the corporate world order.

Telofski rejects claims that networked consumer and shareholder activism, despite the fact that they engage only in the coordinated exercise of practices that all individuals have the right to do in a free market, is “business.”  Such practices, boycotts and proxy fights, are “not that of a pure commercial transaction, the basis of true business.  Their method is rather the corruption of an economic process, supplanted by the political process.”  So greenwashed advertising, manipulation of mass-consumer audiences, and the use of the political process to obtain subsidies and massive “intellectual property” protection, it seems, is a “pure commercial transaction” — but only when large corporations do it.  The few hundred corporations dominating our economy, part of a system which is almost entirely a creature of the state, and which survive only through continuous state intervention and the manipulation of reality through all the hegemonic devices Telofski celebrates, are engaged in “pure commercial transactions.”  He assumes as normal the right of corporations to obtain their profits through the political process, and to define “truth” in their own interests — in a society of “pure commercial transactions.”

But Telofski sees a world dominated by large corporations as entirely natural and normal.   What’s more, it’s the only rational way to organize the world.  Attacks on corporations are attacks on “the attainment of personal happiness enabled by secure employees who have secure jobs at a secure company, … the maintenance of economic progress and the betterment of society via that progress….  I think you will agree that these objectives are important.”

Well, sure.   And an apologist for the state-owned, centrally planned enterprises that dominated the old Soviet economy could just as legitimately have accused advocates of the free market of threatening the enterprises that provided most Russians with their jobs and standard of living.  By definition, the dominant institutions in any society control the supply of jobs and the provision of goods and services to consumers.  By definition, anything that threatens the dominant economic institutions of a society will affect the interests of those currently served by it.

Every $2.5 million of a company’s lost sales resulting from anti-corporate activism, Telofski argues, is $2.5 million less that can be “applied to create better manufacturing facilities and processes, perhaps… a ‘greener’ company,” “donated to charity,” “used to improve… social responsibility,” provide tax revenues, pay employee pay and health insurance, etc.  But that $2.5 million might be shifted to another less socially pathological large corporation, or to smaller, networked, relocalized ways of doing things.  That’s exactly — exactly — the argument used by every protectionist in human history who opposed letting his favored interests suffer the effects of competition or the penalties of their own inefficiency.  Creative destruction — ever hear of it?  Telofski presents nothing — and I mean nothing — in the way of a coherent argument to elevate his position above that of someone defending a manufacturer of buggy whips ca. 1900.

What Telofski fails to see is that the American corporate model is no more self-evidently the only viable way of serving such needs than was the old Soviet model, and that it’s just as contingent — and just as much a state construct serving particular power interests — as the old Soviet system.

He cites David Bowen on the potential of the Internet to put “small, flexible groups on a par, and often above, their giant enemies.”  But he never shows an inkling of consciousness that decentralized, small-scale, networked models of production in both information and manufacturing are supplanting corporate hierarchies because they’re more efficient.

The system Telofski serves supplanted earlier ways of doing things — ways that employed people and met their material needs, and were disrupted by the advent of his system — and was brought about through the exercise of human will and power.

By the way:  Telofski provides a case study of his own use of the Sonny Crockett “clear off the desk” technique to get satisfaction from Best Buy when it failed to meet his expectations:  “I tweeted for almost an hour, sending the same tweet over and over and over and over and over, about how Geek Squad didn’t fix my problem, made it worse, and violated my warranty.”  Egad!  What about the poor Best Buy workers and their secure jobs and 401k accounts?  What about the lost money from the cost of honoring Mr. Telofski’s warranty to his satisfaction, that could no longer be spent on new and better production methods or donated to charity?  Can you say “hypocrite”?  Or could it be that Telofski recognizes — but only in some circumstances, and not in others — that companies behave better when the balance of power is shifted?

In his references to anti-corporate activists’ claims to serve the “public interest” and promote “benefits for society,” his sarcasm fairly drips off the page.  He takes a far more uncritical view of the corporation’s claim to serve the interests of its workers, consumers, “progress,” etc.  He criticizes NGOs for their lack of democratic accountability and for harming the interests of consumers allegedly served by corporations.  Never mind that corporations use their close relationship to the state to promote their interests at public expense.  Never mind the utterly opaque nature of the process involved in drafting and ratifying GATT, assorted Free Trade [sic] Agreements, and ACTA, or the way they’re negotiated in closed rooms by industry representatives and presented to the public as a fait accompli at the last minute.

Management’s agenda is “best business practices,” and in the social interest.  Outside interference with “best business practices,” by definition, “causes inefficiencies.”  The activist agenda is anti-democratic and hurts workers.  The possibility that standard corporate practices are themselves very inefficient, and predominate for the same reason that the methods of a bureaucratic planned economy predominated in the old USSR — i.e., as a result of the exercise of political power — is outside the realm of possibility.

Telofski repeatedly uses the phrase “are you surprised that there’s gambling at Ricks?” in response to possible reader shock and outrage that some ethically questionable behavior is taking place (“More often than not, the board of directors recommends a ‘no’ vote on shareholder initiatives.  Are you surprised there’s gambling at Rick’s?”).  But Telofski seems to think that an economy dominated by gambling at Rick’s — at least when “Rick” is a TNC and not an NGO — is a good thing.  Or at least, in Churchill’s phrase, the worst thing except for all the alternatives.

So the interests of the corporation are the interests of society.  No other form of organization is conceivable as an acceptable basis for society.  The corporation must be safeguarded as a bulwark protecting everything we hold dear.  The real is rational.  (Never mind, by the way, whether those “secure” jobs are just a bit less secure these past decades of cowboy CEOs and downsizings, or whether the pay of “breadwinners” has been stagnant while CEO salaries increased astronomically.)

Telofski overlooks the possibility that in many cases insidious competitors are in competition, not with corporations as such, but with their management.  In such cases, the empowerment of management at the expense of other stakeholders may result in a degradation of efficiency.  It’s frequently been found, for example, that high degrees of self-management and profit-sharing, and reduced inequality and authoritarianism within the workplace, increases overall productivity.  But while such reforms are very much in the interests of the productivity of the organization, they’re also very much opposed to the material and power interests of management.  It’s frequently in management’s interest to get a larger piece of a smaller pie.  But in every case, Telofski assumes that any interference with “standard business practices” as defined by cowboy MBAs will result in a loss of efficiency.

He complains of unions “degrad[ing] the image of the company” by publicly asking “What happened to customer service?”  But he neglects the possibility that management degraded the company’s image when it really did reduced the quality of customer service, by cutting customer service staff — and then pocketed the savings from poor service in the form of “productivity bonuses.”  The firm might operate more efficiently for everyone but management if management heeded workers’ complaints.

For Telofski, any departure from an economy dominated by large corporations (and in which corporations are dominated by MBAs) is a departure from optimal efficiency.  I believe, contra Telofski, that big business acts in collusion with the state to suppress other, better, more efficient alternatives.

Telofski’s Assessment:  Loss of a Hegemonically Constructed Reality

Telofski also takes a view of the transition from broadcast to network culture which I, and very likely most readers of this blog, see as perverse.  Despite a very realistic functional understanding of the process by which networks have replaced hierarchies, an understanding probably shared by most people reading this now, his values and sympathies come across as almost entirely alien.

Previously, before the Internet crept its way into everyone’s homes, way back there in the olden days prior to 1992…, this privilege of “reality packaging” and meaning change belonged to those with the financial resources to support the communications effort necessary to achieve such things.  The mainstream media, large corporations, and governments were generally the only entities who could repackage and define reality for us on a large scale.

No longer.  Now everyone with an Internet connection can play in this game.

Telofski laments the loss of a world in which such large, bureaucratic gatekeeping organizations served as “agents of common knowledge.”  He reminds me a bit of a rant I once heard from Bill O’Reilly, while listening to talk radio in my truck:  O’Reilly looked back nostalgically to the public schools of his childhood, when students were inculcated with a single, official view of American society and American history.  O’Reilly contrasted the Golden Age, with a consensus reality mediated by the public schools and Walter Cronkite, with the sorry degraded reality of his own day when “any crazy website can say anything it wants.”  O tempora!  O mores! In fact Telofski contrasts this unregulated Wild West of free speech with the requirement for “training and a license to operate a motor vehicle,” which is a comparison that recurs frequently in the work of Schumpeterian managerialists like Andrew Keen.

Although Telofski grasps the institutional significance quite realistically, I think he misses the epistemological significance.   The main change has been, not the loss of “objective reality,” but the replacement of institutions as the mediators of this reality by an adversarial process for approaching it dialectically.  We have lost, as Telofski puts it, the “hegemonic construction of reality,” but that doesn’t equate to a loss of objective truth.  Indeed, it may be that the dialectic will give us a closer approximation to objective reality than the previous view which was obscured (“through a glass darkly”) by the mediation of institutional power.  As I have argued elsewhere, the old adversarial or dialectical model of journalism, as it existed in the party newspapers of the nineteenth century, produced a closer approximation to objective reality than the fake neutrality of “he said, she said” journalism on the Lippman model.

Telofski yearns for the world of the 1960s, the years of his childhood as a news junkie, when American culture was less fragmented and truth was mediated by Huntley and Brinkley.  It never seems to occur to him that this authorized, official version of reality was subjective, and constructed to serve an interest.  The “middle-of-the-road” picture of reality his contemporaries got back then represented the mindset of the dominant institutions that ran society.  The “official reality” he lionizes was the same false construct celebrated by Samuel Huntington, who longed for a return to the days when the United States was “the hegemonic power in a system of world order,” which was possible only because the country “was governed by the president acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the Executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private establishment.”  [The Crisis of Democracy, 1975]

Our only real salvation from the partial and subjective is cross-examination:  the dialectic.  As much as his view of corporate power differs from ours, I suspect his view of the nature of truth differs even more.

Telofski, quite oddly, sees the “packaging” of reality by instititutions — including the corporate images and branding he makes his living defending — as a more dependable source of truth than the network model.  For him institutions, not process, are the source of authenticity and certainty.  By way of background, we might consider the history of science as the result of a process rather than of institutional authority.

Consider the way he equates the “mangling of meaning” to the “repackaging of reality” to “redefining the corporate image.”  Apparently, if we try to extract a syllogistic argument from this, the corporate image = reality.  And he himself later directly equates them in warning that anti-corporate propagandists “corrupt the system of knowing and threaten the corporate image.”

Telofski dismisses as “subjective” anti-corporate propagandists’ objections to corporate power, but fails to acknowledge that the image of the world promoted by corporations is equally subjective.  He quotes Jacques Ellul to the effect that propaganda is a one-sided “pairing of facts with intentions and interpretation of the facts.”  Indeed, to be effective in the long run, propaganda must be built on a scaffolding of factual veracity.  One’s opinion concerning the significance of the facts may be “shaded” or “one-sided,” but the facts stated must be accurate.

But think about it:  If “propaganda” by insidious competitors is simply one interpretation of a set of facts, an interpretation which cannot itself be proven true or false, it’s hard to see why Telofski sees the corporate perception as less of a partial or particular viewpoint, or more privileged compared to other opinions.   Or why a challenge to the corporate perception of reality can be characterized as “degrading reality.”  The only acceptable picture of reality is the one “hegemonically constructed” by dominant organizations, although he doesn’t specify why — unless because it’s a means to the political and economic dominance of such organizations, and their dominance is necessary to the proper functioning of society.

This Telofski obviously assumes and occasionally asserts, but nowhere proves. There’s no doubt he sees as ludicrously insane suggestions from the Left that the world has been dominated by corporations and their propaganda to its detriment, but he hardly goes beyond restating such views in scare quotes, with an eye roll and a “Can you believe this stuff?”

The general public has believed for decades that they have been exposed to what they characterize as “corporate propaganda.”  Now that social media is available, it gives the average person a worldwide platform from which to “return fire” and propagandize back.  Turnabout is fair play and “payback is always a bitch.”  Now ordinary people have the equipment, and relatively inexpensive equipment, to “stick it to the man.”

Contrast Telofski’s view of the value of the corporate-constructed reality with radical accounts of the science of “manufacturing consent” by the state propaganda, mass advertising and pubic relations industries, as described by such engineers of consciousness as Bernays and Lasswell.  Such people were under no illusions:  their purpose was to engineer the kind of public consciousness which was necessary for the survival of state and corporate power.  But like Huxley’s World Controller, they saw a world administered by such large organizations, and in which public consciousness was shaped to the needs of large organizations, as the only world compatible with long-run human welfare.  As Noam Chomsky ascribed it to Walter Lippmann, I suspect it’s something like Telofski’s own view of the world:

It follows that two political roles must be clearly distinguished, Lippmann goes on to explain. First, there is the role assigned to the specialized class, the “insiders,” the “responsible men,” who have access to information and understanding. Ideally, they should have a special education for public office, and should master the criteria for solving the problems of society: “In the degree to which these criteria can be made exact and objective, political decision,” which is their domain, “is actually brought into relation with the interests of men.” The “public men” are, furthermore, to “lead opinion” and take the responsibility for “the formation of a sound public opinion.” “They initiate, they administer, they settle,” and should be protected from “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” the general public, who are incapable of dealing “with the substance of the problem.” The criteria we apply to government are success in satisfying material and cultural wants, not whether “it vibrates to the self-centered opinions that happen to be floating in men’s minds.” Having mastered the criteria for political decision, the specialized class, protected from public meddling, will serve the public interest — what is called “the national interest” in the webs of mystification spun by the academic social sciences and political commentary.

The second role is “the task of the public,” which is much more limited. It is not for the public, Lippmann observes, to “pass judgment on the intrinsic merits” of an issue or to offer analysis or solutions, but merely, on occasion, to place “its force at the disposal” of one or another group of “responsible men.” The public “does not reason, investigate, invent, persuade, bargain, or settle.” Rather, “the public acts only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to act executively,” once he has given the matter at hand sober and disinterested thought. It is for this reason that “the public must be put in its place.” The bewildered herd, trampling and roaring, “has its function”: to be “the interested spectators of action,” not participants. Participation is the duty of “the responsible man.”

Telofski cites Jacques Ellul on the irrationality and emotional clouding that propaganda targets.  But isn’t this irrationality precisely what corporate advertising and branding target?  If he truly sees the world of corporate-mediated consciousness as more rational, then the rationality can only be one of ends, not of means.  It can only be a world of necessary lies, in order to preserve a system of power which the average person is incapable of rationally grasping the need for.

Telofski’s Counter-Agenda

Despite his perverse viewpoint, Telofski sees the dangers quite realistically, and does about as well as anyone in his position could do in formulating an agenda for counter-attack.

But the very fact of having to pursue such an agenda means the war is lost.  Corporate power depends on one-way control of discourse.  If they have to wage a contest of facts and reason against those who can talk back, they’ve already lost.  Telofski is the best they’ve got — but he’s still not good enough.

Fighting a war against insidious competitors on the level of truth is doomed to fail because — Telofski to the contrary — the corporation is on very thin ice here.  Stacking up the defenses of corporate power against the attacks of its critics, it’s the critics who will generally come out ahead in a battle of facts.  The simple fact of the matter is that the existing corporate system is a system of massive state subsidy, massive state protection against competition, massive privilege, artificial property rights, and rents on artificial scarcity.  To claim that the typical Fortune 500 corporation got where it is through superior efficiency in the free market is about as plausible as claiming that, say, a turtle on top of a fencepost got there by being such a good climber.

As Telofski himself points out, studies show that most people “would much rather trust a stranger than a celebrity,” and instinctively distrust “any paid-for communications or advertising.”  Indeed one of Telofski’s own “Five Factors of Insidious Competition” is “individual disdain of institutional power.”  Paid advertising and statements from public spokespersons have, in fact, acquired what Chris Dillow calls “negative credibility.”  As the old line from “Yes, Minister” goes:  “One should never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.”

One of the central themes of The Cluetrain Manifesto was the negative credibility attaching, in the public’s eyes, to “the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies.”

The public will automatically attach more credibility to what seems to be a critique of big institutions by those on the outside, by workers and consumers, than it will to anything that gives the remotest whiff of being sponsored or organized by the institution itself.  Short of some sort of John Lott/Mary Rosh subterfuge, that’s pretty hard to overcome.

And when the public statements of the corporation and its ideological lapdogs are clearly lies — and they are lies, to almost the same extent as the pronouncements of the nomenklatura in the old USSR — they don’t even have the advantage of veracity to fall back on.

Telofski recommends that the corporation’s information warriors “identify the attacker as mistaken.”  Confront the opponent with “facts,” obtained from “objective, third party sources.”  All I can say is, bring it on!  A central theme of my writing over the past ten years has been the ways in which government subsidies and government protections against competition have made large corporations artificially prevalent over small-scale, decentralized producers serving local markets.  And the dominant corporate players in the world today are all overwhelmingly dependent on such subsidies and protections for their current economic position.  Don’t believe it?   “Chapter Two.  Moloch:  The Anatomy of Sloanist Mass-Production Industry,” in The Homebrew Industrial Revolution.  “Chapter Three.  State Policies Promoting Centralization and Large Organizational Size,” in Organization Theory:  A Libertarian Perspective.

A great deal of corporate propaganda is superficially attractive appeals to “free enterprise” and “free markets” that can be cut off at the knees by showing just what a bunch of corporate welfare queens and hypocritical protectionists those piggies at the trough really are, and how dependent they are on IP laws and other forms of protectionism. (Take, for example Monsanto’s use of food libel laws to suppress commercial free speech.  Take attempts to suppress competition from those with more stringent quality standards, like meatpackers that test for mad cow disease more frequently than required by law, on the grounds that it constitutes “disparagement” of those who meeet only the minimal regulatory standard.)

Corporate “debunking” can be countered with still more unflattering facts and critical analysis of the “debunking” itself.  The corporation finds itself fighting an ongoing public battle in which it is forced to engage its critics on the grounds of truth — and the critics can keep talking back.  Their worst nightmare, in other words.  There’s a reason PR flacks and politicians don’t like follow-up questions.

A battle based on facts and truth?  Shee-it.  Don’t even go there.  The only hope for corporate power is that people stay ignorant — in their “hegemonically constructed reality” created by big business — as long as possible.

He also suggests alliances with other organizations to help present your case.  Problem is, they’re institutions.  And people don’t trust institutions — see above.  You might give them some progressive- and independent-sounding name, like the fake corporate lobbyist “think tanks” that found Philip Morris cigarettes are good for your lungs and seagulls like oil scum.  But we’re in an environment where those insidious competitors can talk back, remember?  When you’re allied with another organization, you can bet your bottom the fact that it’s allied with you, and that it’s “facts” are suspect, will be part of the information package your enemies are distributing.

Telofski suggests running PSAs that point out the misleading nature of the “facts” shared by corporate critics.  And he suggests running them through alternative channels like trade associations.  Nope, no credibility problems there!  Come on, now!  Did you ever see a corporate-sponsored PSA that didn’t look as fake as Michael Jackson’s marriages?  My favorite is those ads with links to cornsugar.com, where you can get “the facts” about high fructose corn syrup.  How about those “America’s Energy Future” spots by the American Petroleum Institute?  Just how stupid do they think people are?  It’s like watching Joe Friday working as an undercover vice cop, trying to buy some “marijuana cigarettes.”

And if you survey the typical examples of corporate attempts to confront their critics with “the facts,” as we see them most frequently in the media, they’re almost all of the cornsugar.com or API variety.  These people really don’t know how not to seem fake.

And he suggests that corporations “radicalize the attacker,” by using social graphing software to link them with suspect associations, unsavory supporters, etc., and undermine their public credibility.  But as we already noted, that sword cuts both ways.  You may show that anti-corporate activists are friends with some Dirty Fucking Hippies, but we can show that most of your “factual” propaganda and most of the messages coming from your “allied organizations” are Industry-Funded Junk Science.

What’s more, even if some of us may look like Tommy Chong, we can get our facts — facts which overwhelmingly disprove the corporate pretend reality — from genuinely independent scholarly and respected public interest sources so straight they make Wally Cox look like Jerry Garcia.  What it comes down to in the end is facts — can your glossy bullet points and “Did you knows…” stand up to relentless cross-examination in a world where we can finally talk back?  Once again — Bring It On!

“Make your counter-attacks across different media.”  Hey, we can do that too.  And probably more effectively, since you represent large powerful  institutions with a lot to lose, and a lot to be embarrassed about, and their power interests involve keeping some very specific constituencies and stakeholders ignorant about how the sausage is being made.

My favorite:  “Hold the attacker to liability laws.”  Once again, I refer you to the Streisand Effect.  Check out the McLibel trial, the Diebold emails, the Sinclair Media boycott, the DeCSS uprising, and a thousand other examples.  You really, really don’t want to go there.  You’ll just wind up being systematically taken apart in front of a much, much larger audience.  If nothing else, you’ll just drive your critics to adopt encryption and proxy servers and “Go Nasty.”

Telofski recommends attempts at authenticity.  The problem is, corporations are horrible at this authenticity stuff.   They never sound  as fake as they do when they’re trying to sound “authentic.”  A good example is the soft-lit hospital ads, with the elevator music and all the smiling seniors, that run on most local cable systems.  They aim for authentic, but what they get is smarmy and slick.  They get the kind of stuff that people like to make fun of.  And thanks to network culture, we do make fun of it, without mercy.  The plain fact of the matter is, you can’t script something to sound authentic — it will sound fake and scripted.

The one thing Telofski suggests that sounds plausibly effective is search engine optimization — and perhaps not coincidentally, that’s the main thing most “reputation management” companies actually do.  If everything you’ve got to say is a lie, and everyone in the general public will automatically assume anyone wearing a tie and standing behind a mic is a liar, about the best you can do is rig the search engines so fewer people will read the truth about you.

Telofski recommends something like the U.S. military’s Fourth Generation Warfare doctrine, with “social media squads” having a high degree of autonomy to respond to attacks, and going on extended recon through the jungles of social media without much supervision from the C-suite.  It’s a pretty common theme, ranging from the above-mentioned 4GW in the military to Enterprise 2.0 in the workplace:  to create a hybrid network-hierarchical organizational form with all the agility and resilience of networks but serving the interests of a hierarchy.

Unfortunately for hierarchies, it doesn’t work.  Hierarchies have virtually no self-restraint when it comes to interfering with the “autonomous” networks under their jurisdictions.  The only time networked organization works is when there is no hierarchy, and there’s nobody there who can interfere.  A good example is U.S. attempts to implement 4GW doctrine in Afghanistan.  The original idea was to recreate the advantages of networked resistance organizations, to take advantage of the decentralizing potential of networked communications technology, and increase the autonomy of tactical commanders with their own independent access to high volumes of intelligence.  That’s what the Army’s 4GW doctrine called for.  In practice, though, mid-level commanders saw it as a way to increase the number of signoffs required from… wait for it… mid-level commanders before a tactical commander was allowed to do anything.  So regardless of the doctrine on paper, networked communications technology was used to empower the bureaucracy against the front line, instead of the opposite.

Telofski overlooks a lot of the possibilities of networked information warfare against corporations.  He discusses some bulletin board sites like JobVent and things like social networking sites, shareholder proxy efforts, boycotts, etc.

But he entirely neglects the potential for targeted email campaigns — perhaps the single most effective form of superempowerment, and thanks to network  culture giving the individual the capability of launching attacks that are entirely “cosmic” (aimed at a planned, coherent result) and “cognitive” (aimed at provoking some definite change in the target’s behavior) in ways once possible only to large organized groups.  To quote my own article on open-mouth sabotage:

It’s also easy to compile a devastating email distribution list:  all your employer’s major customers, contractors and outlets, the community social and charitable organizations management hobnobs with, consumer and labor advocacy groups, mainstream and alternative press at both local and national levels, etc.  Just save that draft email with file attachment, pre-addressed to your distribution list, and hit “Send” the day you get fired.  Or maybe just set up a dummy email account and send it anonymously right now.  Either way, the subsequent barrage of emails and phone calls will hit the executive suite like an atomic blast….

Let’s take a specific case:   Pretend you work at a hospital…. You send copies to the offices of the most important doctors with admitting privileges, the local United Way/Red Cross leadership the hospital management likes to hobnob with, the Chamber of Commerce and City Council, the local nursing college that sends students to train there, the major charitable donors, the local alternative press, all the reporters whose bylines have appeared under healthcare stories in the mainstream paper, to the CEOs of other local hospitals, and then CC it to the board of directors and C-suite (not to mention major shareholders and creditors!) at corporate headquarters while you’re at it.

The distinction Telofski makes between “chaotic” and “cosmic” organization (i.e., between uncoordinated and ad hoc individual efforts and the coordinated, programmatic efforts of coherent movements) in my opinion fails to take into account the significance of stigmergic organization.  One of the chief benefits of stigmergic organization is that it enables many individuals, acting on their own, to coordinate their individual efforts with a larger cause, without the intermediation of any institutional coordinating mechanism.  And the desktop revolution, in cultural and information fields, has blurred the distinction in quality between the work that can be produced by an individual at home with a few hundred dollars worth of hardware and software, and what used to be possible only at work using the resources of a large organization.  That takes us back to what Robb calls “individual superempowerment,” which lets individuals fight large organizations on a level battlefield.

The beauty of network culture is that it renders obsolete the old distinction between uncoordinated attacks by lone “disgruntled workers” and organized attacks by unions.  Stigmergy is the system of coordination used by ants.  Contrary to popular myth, ants do not take orders from the queen or anybody else.  There is no coordinating authority, but a sort of “invisible hand” effect is achieved as individuals coordinate their own self-motivated behavior with that of others, entirely on their own initiative, through their individual responses to environmental markers left by others.

It’s the way Wikipedia operates.  It’s the way open-source software developers coordinate their individual efforts with those of the larger developer community, as described by Eric Raymond in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”  It’s the way folks open-source hardware community coordinate the design of their modular components and accessories to a common platform or product ecology.  It’s the way individual cells in asymmetric warfare networks coordinate their efforts with a larger cause characterized largely by “leaderless organization.”  It’s the way new cracks for DRM are immediately distributed to those who can make best use for them, and next week DRM-free versions of songs and movies are available for free download by those with little or no tech skill.

In the case of the disgruntled worker, he may act alone.  But he can see what’s already out there on the Web, and make an assessment of what he can do that would cause the most damage to his employer.  His own revelations are more effective when they’re added to comments from others at existing sites.  Or he can package them on an employernamesucks.com website of his own creation, or an Employer Name Sucks! blog set up for free courtesy of Blogger or WordPress, and then either link to everyone else’s criticisms or invite their comments in his new venue.  Either way, his contributions, thanks to network effects, act as force multipliers for the efforts of others — and vice versa.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And what Telofski calls a “pile-on” is no longer just a random mass of uncoordinated efforts — it forms according to a cumulative logic of its own just like a Wiki.

To repeat:  Telofski is probably the best that their side can ever hope to come up with.  But he’s still not good enough.  If they slow down and try to avoid decisive engagements, appeal to image and market mainly to stupid people with brand loyalties, they can probably make the process of being nibbled to death by networked piranha last several decades.  If they try to fight a pitched battle against us on his model, we’ll just kill them faster.

3 Comments Richard Telofski — Insidious Competition

  1. Todd S.

    Thanks for reading this for us, Kevin. From your quotes, I can tell that I’d have thrown the book into the BBQ pit before finishing the first chapter. Incidentally, the chicken breasts that I would have grilled over the ensuing fire were bought from a local poultry farmer, bypassing both the supermarket and the corporate poultry packing house.

    One paragraph in particular stood out to me given my own experiences with working for a large corporation:

    Telofski overlooks the possibility that in many cases insidious competitors are in competition, not with corporations as such, but with their management. In such cases, the empowerment of management at the expense of other stakeholders may result in a degradation of efficiency. It’s frequently been found, for example, that high degrees of self-management and profit-sharing, and reduced inequality and authoritarianism within the workplace, increases overall productivity. But while such reforms are very much in the interests of the productivity of the organization, they’re also very much opposed to the material and power interests of management. It’s frequently in management’s interest to get a larger piece of a smaller pie. But in every case, Telofski assumes that any interference with “standard business practices” as defined by cowboy MBAs will result in a loss of efficiency.

    My employer is quite fond of reminding us of all the bounties they bestow upon us – without us actually having asked for any of them BTW. I got so frustrate with my own boss the other day after the usual propagandizing that I blurted out “There’s one thing they’d never grant us in a million years: autonomy in our work.”. He quickly changed the subject after that.

  2. Kevin CarsonKevin Carson

    Thanks, Todd S.: The more I think about it, the more Telofski’s assumptions seem to be what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism”: the assumption that the Little Eichmanns running the present system are just thankless servants of the common man, who have the realism to do What Needs To Be Done — while questioning the present way of organizing things, on a fundamental level, indicates a basic lack of seriousness.

    It’s the attitude of The Major in Suarez’s “Daemon” novels: the present system is the only way to produce a high standard of living for so many people, and blah blah woof woof, but the average person is an ingrate who doesn’t want to know what goes into his sausage and prefers to live in a world of rainbows and kitties. The soccer mom driving Hannah and Emma to piano practice in her SUV takes her pink-ass suburban lifestyle for granted, without ever stopping to thank the military torturers and death squads that make it all possible. Gotta break eggs to make an omelet, etc., etc., etc.

    Such people display a remarkable lack of reflectiveness on just how contingent the present model of organization really is. There is a wide range of possibilities for organization given the basic material and technological realities at any given time (e.g. the rival decentralized craft and centralized mass-production alternatives for integrating electrically powered machinery into manufacturing a hundred years ago). The real difference in “necessity” concerns, not the requirements for a comfortable median standard of living, but the requirements for supporting a superstructure of Little Eichmanns. For them, “No Other World is Possible.”

  3. Todd S.

    The attitude that you are talking about is what drove me from being a faithful reader of mises.org to being a faithful reader of c4ss and a lot of Long’s stuff. It’s almost entirely thanks to your work that I’ve discovered the whole Maker culture and sites like this one – things that naturally appeal to me and my nature yet I’ve somehow overlooked for most of my adult life.

    The idea of a distributed network being capable of producing much of what we require capital-intensive large-scale factories for today is quite heartening, and looking more like reality every day. My only real hope is that I can get in on the fun and quit the wage slavery before I’m too old to enjoy it.

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