New Islamic State Currency Worth More Than Its Weight in Gold

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It looks like the Islamic State’s official currency has at last gone from design mock-up to actual minted coin.

Image via independent.mk

Image via independent.mk

The coin will be called the Islamic dinar, will be struck in precious metals, and will theoretically function as the currency of day-to-day exchange throughout regions controlled by IS.

Mashable quotes an analyst from Flashpoint Global Partners, a private intelligence agency, who dismisses this development with troubling glibness.

“The group could feasibly make as many gold, silver and copper coins as it wishes to, but the only value this so-called currency is going to have is the value of the precious metal itself.”

In all fairness to Flashpoint and Mashable, at least they’re thinking about the political biases of the Islamic dinar. Other sources, from the Washington Post to the BBC have offered little-to-no analysis, while one editorial circulating around SkyNews, YahooUK and elsewhere offers a few scrambled economic truisms before moving on to the admittedly more thrilling, but less informative, blah blah death cult drum-beating.

That granted, any argument for the Islamic dinar’s worthlessness is, at best, a polemical strategy. It does not reflect economic reality. And from a media-theoretical perspective, it’s absolutely incorrect.

Currency is a medium. Besides functioning as a means of barter and trade, it communicates, reinforces, and even introduces cultural values and practices. In this sense, the Islamic dinar has the potential to be highly valuable as a tool for transmitting and rewriting the cultural practices of regions controlled by IS.

The Flashpoint spokesman is absolutely correct that the Islamic dinar per se will have no value outside its region save as precious metal. But this is only a small fraction of the what currency does. What Flashpoint’s position ignores is the surplus cultural value implicit in that unexchangeability. Most local currencies are hard, if not impossible, to exchange. We can see examples of this surplus cultural value in such existing local currencies as the BerkShare, Bristol Pound or Amsterdam Makkie. And when the value implicit in local currency is applied to a region as unstable as the middle east, and a culture as totalitarian as IS would prefer, this value has the potential to increase exponentially.

The primary biases of local currencies with limited exchangeability are threefold:

1.) A local currency strengthens community identity. This point is almost self-evident. A currency that shares the name of one’s region or community, and belongs only to members of that community is both a symbol and enforcer of in-group identity.

2.) Local currency keeps wealth circulating within a proscribed region and society. It discourages hoarding, speculation and foreign extraction of wealth. As a consequence, there tends to be more opportunity for intra-community business, especially for small and medium-sized operations. Local currency therefore tends to foster the perception of an equal citizenry, while discouraging the formation (or at least the visible formation) of an economic elite.

3.) By the same token, local currency tends to foster a sense of regional isolation. When a local currency may not be exchanged for a non-local one, trade between regions and nations becomes exceedingly difficult. To use the BerkShare as an example, one may purchase locally-produced groceries in BerkShares, but not computers, copper or automobiles. The Dutch Makkie is backed by users’ volunteer hours within their community, and is thus primarily accepted as payment for other services, not goods. In Massachusetts and Amsterdam, where citizens have access to  national currencies, these local moneys are complementary. They may improve community cohesion and commerce, but always within the field of a larger national economy. In IS-controlled territory, however, such complementarity will not be an option, and regional isolation and in-group chauvinism are likely to flourish as a result.

Taken together, these biases promise to deliver exactly the cultural climate sought by the Islamic State. Facility of day-to-day trade improves infrastructure and the perception that IS is fit to govern, while the bias against hoarding supports IS’s rhetoric of (Sunni) Muslim equality in the emerging Ummah. Meanwhile, the practical impossibility of foreign trade bolsters IS’s attitude of righteous aggrievement and besieged urgency.

Since so much of IS wealth flows from Gulf-State sources, this new arrangement also has the potential to create a two-tiered monetary system—one for the citizens, and one for government. The currency of statecraft, (which alone can purchase guns and ammunition) will continue to flow to the political elite in the form of riyals, while the currency of wages will become segregated in the Islamic dinar. Upon full adoption of the dinar, it will therefore become even more difficult for any inhabitants of the Islamic State to acquire military, police, or political power without the blessing of IS leadership, thus protecting the entrenched Islamic State from local challenges to its authority.

It’s no surprise that the press sometimes comes up short in its appraisal of a phenomenon as complex as IS. As a former (small-time) journalist, I’m sympathetic to the pressure on reporters to master a complex subject in the time it takes most people to write an email. But Flashpoint is not a journalist on deadline. It’s a private intelligence adviser, presumably one with clients whose actions impact those of us living here in the West. It’s entirely possible that their quote to Mashable was strategic—or out of context—and does not represent the sum of their understanding when it comes to the Islamic dinar. I hope so, for so long as our analysis of IS remains polemical, we remain at a disadvantage, and therefore at risk. Our political goals may be motivated by ideology—liberty, suffrage, the rule of law—but the West will only begin to beat back totalitarian Islamic fundamentalism when our approach begins with actual facts rigorously organized by proven theory. Reality must always precede ideology, or else the latter is doomed.

If anyone is interested in learning more about currency as a medium, I strongly recommend Douglas Rushkoff’s doctoral dissertation, Monopoly Moneys, available online for free via Utrecht University Repository.

Analysts Fail to Consider ISIS Execution Videos In Context

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Over at Slate, Joshua Keating has published a piece warning readers that ISIS’s execution videos are proving an effective recruitment tool. It’s a brief article, and does not purport to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, I believe it exemplifies a broader failure on the part of Western analysts to truly understand ISIS as a media phenomenon. ISIS’s Violence, the headline reads, Is Its Message. With all due respect to Keating, whose work I follow closely, this focus on raw content is at best an incomplete assessment. In fact, the persuasive power of the Islamic State’s messaging can only be understood when considered as a part of the larger media ecosystem in which it exists.

The ISIS phenomenon does not exist in a media vacuum any more than it does a political vacuum. Which is to say, the ISIS videos are not merely the sum of their frames. Indeed, these videos’ true persuasive power resides in the modality of their presentation. As I’ve argued before, Western censorship (both corporate and governmental), by deferring full dissemination to marginal, or even sympathetic, media organs, ironically does the work of a media buyer for ISIS’s “advertising and marketing” wing. When CNN (or Slate) fails to show these videos for their complete grotesque duration, they abdicate the power to contextualize, and therefore to shape meaning. That power then falls to the jihadi BBSes, the Western-critical leak sites, and avowed neoconservative propagandists who, for a variety of motives ranging from neutral to malicious, honest to Machiavellian, are willing to present these executions in full. Contrary to Keating’s implication, viewers, including potential ISIS recruits, never experience raw content. Raw content does not exist out of context. Rather, viewers consume, interact, and even merge psychologically with the totality of the media-viewing experience, with all its many messages, explicit and covert, friendly or otherwise.

At this point, Western analysts with better resources than mine are measuring and debating the actual effectiveness of the ISIS videos as recruitment tools. Good luck to them. But unless they conduct their research with an eye toward the complete media ecosystem in which these videos exist and are consumed, their conclusions will be at best incomplete, and more likely inaccurate and misleading. Perhaps such repellant acts of cruelty really are effective means of recruiting “ordinary” soldier-types. But if so, I sincerely doubt this would continue to be the case were the power to shape their meaning not already handed over to so many malicious and irresponsible actors.

Expect Increased Variety in Propaganda-Killings by the Islamic State

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In order to provide access to all media discussed, this blog often must link to distasteful or extremist news sources. Neutral content hosts are always sought, but not always available. I do not endorse any offsite messages. All graphic content is labeled NSFW.

Last year, 2014, bore witness to a succession of beheading videos, originating from the Islamic State, coupled with more-or-less similar dispatches from the group’s urban warfare campaigns. We marveled at these messages’ dispersal throughout the spheres of digital media, the consistency of their messaging, and their similarity to the organized marketing campaigns of major corporate brands.

But if last year’s IS propaganda was characterized by consistency, its 2015 media blitz is already shaping up to be one of unsettling variety. A quick of scan of war crimes publicized and promoted by the group will reveal a marked increase in the diversity and—for lack of a better term—creativity of its atrocities so far this year. In less than six months, the group’s self-documented war crimes have gone from from condemned prisoners kneeling in open air, to standing in cages [NSFW], from solitary, almost intimate executions to mass-beheadings [NSFW], immolation [NSFW]stonings, crucifixions and the defenestration of accused homosexuals [NSFW].

Indeed, the group seems at pains not to repeat itself within the same news cycle. But the motive behind this “novelty” is not some psychopathic sense of boredom—at least not functionally. Rather, it is an effective strategic response to Western media’s treatment of the beheading videos of 2014.

Western media’s widespread decision to censor footage of IS beheadings has forced the organization to diversify its targeting tactics. Print-primary media and censored broadcasts lack the individualizing, specifying elements unique to video. The Islamic State must therefore change the linguistic-indexical categorizations of its atrocities as frequently as possible in order to distinguish one act of violence from the next. That is to say, unlike video depictions of murder, which are rendered unique by the visible individuality of their cinematography, the mere term “beheading” does not renew itself from act to act. Its repetition, absent a visual referent, actually reduces its ability to terrify. Even when coupled with victims’ names, printed reportage emphasizes the sameness of the terrorist act, reducing its impact, its reach and its fearfulness. The casual reader wonders if this is the same beheading as last month’s, or a new one? And how many does that make since January? The names and headlines run together. Repeated often enough, the very word begins to lose meaning.

And so, when an image may not be shown, the word must be made to suffice: hence the increasing diversity and sensationalism of IS’s torture, terror and killing tactics. By shifting categories of violence—from beheading to immolation to crucifixion, etc., etc.—each act remains nominally singular, unique to its news cycle, and less likely to lose its individuality in relation to past or future actions. To each week belongs its own sensational term, in a litany of violence seemingly drawn from the pages of a grindcore fanzine.

All of this underlines one key point: the propaganda of the deed (i.e. terrorism) and the propaganda of the word/image are increasingly indistinguishable in the digital realm. By digital media’s very interactivity, personal customizability, and increasing anatomical fusion with our own bodies, we inhabit digital space. We do not, as was the case with broadcast media, merely observe such violence. For to encounter terror’s representation in cyberspace is now to locate it within our immediate presence. Any attempt to separate the act of terror from its media representations therefore becomes an arbitrary exercise for all but violence’s most immediate victims (who, one might point out, hardly need the distinction made on their behalf).

The Islamic State understands this, if not theoretically then at least intuitively. It views its human victims as mere props in a campaign of terror intended to occupy the newest frontier of human consciousness and habitation: digital media. The victims of IS’s most grisly violence are—tragically, stupidly, unforgivably—secondary to that purpose. In these carefully staged theaters of cruelty, the true target is, and has always been, the viewing audience. Lifting corporate censorship will not solve that aspect of the IS problem (although it should be undertaken for other good reasons). However, if we understand that these multiform acts of torture are not the psychopathic whimsies of cartoon supervillains, or sadistic delights of Boschian demons, but rather crass advertising messages resembling such monsters, and intended to sell Western audiences on a message of danger and helplessness, then we will fail to be terrorized. Only then, and then only perhaps, will we be able to approach this crisis with clear heads and some attitude, one hopes, approaching maturity, accountable both to ourselves and to those civilians and soldiers who must eventually face this violence in the flesh.

Filtering Extremist Content Only Massages the Process of Radicalization

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For reasons described below, this blog links to some very graphic content, which is labeled NSFW. Caveat spectator.

The Islamic State’s recent release of video depicting the murder of Kenji Goto [NSFW] comes amid increasing pressure from European government towards social media platforms to suppress violent and extremist content. On Friday, PandoDaily published a brief report on the European Parliament’s quixotic plan to block extremist digital content prior even to upload. Addressing the parliament, Google policy manager Verity Harding compared such an effort to “screening a phone call before it’s made.”

But beyond its practical impossibility, there is an important strategic argument against both the prior restraint favored by EU lawmakers, and such after-the-fact censorship as is already in place at user created content platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Whether filtering occurs as a result of government censorship or corporate policy, it nevertheless serves to organize extremist media into messaging hierarchies, according to levels of likely audience receptivity.

Extremist ideology may be understood as a commodity, one that is marketed and advertised for the purpose of acquiring moral, economic, political and military support. By filtering the worst expressions of extremist ideology, governments and media companies actually serve terrorist organizations in the manner of a media buyer to a brand, helping to target the groups’ marketing messages to the most likely receptive markets. Censorious digital media platforms shield casual viewers from that hateful and violent content which would most likely repel them. Meanwhile, humanizing messages such as @ISILCats and more conventional propaganda of righteous aggrievement are permitted to serve as the public face of the Islamist brand, offering a soft sell initiation into the terroristic sales funnel. Ideological consumers—charmed or emotionally moved by agreeable, public-facing propaganda—may then delve deeper into successively less censorious platforms, and their more extreme jihadi content.

The process of radicalization is, in part, one of acclimation and desensitization. Content filtering initiatives, such as those proposed by EU member nations, only massage that process. By removing terroristic messages from ready public viewing, we are neither punishing violent extremists, nor protecting innocent citizens. A call for total openness on our digital media platforms is not a free-speech-fundamentalist argument (though it admittedly serves those values). Violent jihadi propaganda is its own best counter-marketing. If presented without filter, its repellence and barbarity far outweigh its appeal. But that balance of content is only possible if this media is allowed to reach potential converts prior to their desensitization.

Why I Don’t Want a Meaningful Job

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“Millennials want to work–and despite being shackled by debt, recession, and the jobs crisis–they aren’t motivated by money. Rather, they’re driven to make the world more compassionate, innovative, and sustainable.”Adam Smiley Poswolsky, Fast Company, “4 Tips to Help Millennials Find Meaningful Work”

Today, the message came from Fast Company, but tomorrow it could be Forbes. Or The New York Times. Or Fox Business.

Once a week, some business reporter tries to combat the stereotype of the lazy Millennial with an article argues that, no, we Generation Y’ers merely ask that our work be meaningful. Today’s young people, they sniff, are far from the lazy prima donnas we’re made out to be. It’s just that such matters as money and job tenure are beneath us. Keep your pensions and dental plans; what we care about is making a difference.

Don’t buy it. Millennials don’t seek meaningful work because we’re selfless, or idealistic. If we value meaningfulness more than most, it is only because meaning is the sole reward we’ve come to count on in exchange for our labor.

Leaving aside the question of just how prevalent the lazy Millennial meme actually is (I notice more articles purporting to debunk the myth than spreading it), these think pieces miss the larger point. More than anything, they’re bits of convenient ephemera, based on seriously flawed research, providing convenient ideological cover for the reality of vanishing opportunities in the age of a declining middle class.

Take, for example, a statistic that appears in both the Forbes and Fast Company articles, which says that the typical Millennial job lasts fewer than 4 years. Technically, that’s true, and the meaningfulness crowd cites it as evidence that we are “job hoppers” unconcerned with building long-term careers. But they ignore the fact that one-quarter to one-third of all college-educated Millennials cannot possibly have been in the workforce for more than 4 years—they’re simply too young—or that these statistics have been gathered against the backdrop of the greatest employment disruption since the Great Depression.

The meaningfulness literature is full of such flaws and vagaries, and Brandon Towl has penned a thorough critique of the statistics behind the meme. He points out that these studies’ methodologies can be quite hard to come by, and are often interpreted by people with solutions for sale.

Indeed, when we strip away the marketing-speak, we see that Generation Y is not so different from our parents. According to one survey, Millennials, Boomers and Gen Xers value job security to roughly the same degree. That same survey finds Millennials more likely than any other generation to rank salary as “very important.” And the assertion that we are eager to move on runs up against a Pew finding that only 25% of Millennials believe they could “easily” find a job if they lost their current one.

Make no mistake, if your average Millennial could go to work in the office at the cracker factory, own a house, raise three kids and buy a boat, they would. We would work, save, and find our meaning in charitable pursuits or with our family. But when the financial landscape into which we emerge after graduation consists of an average $45k debt, 30% full-time employment, and 48% underemployment, what’s left to pursue, except meaning?

Was there ever a more idealistic generation than the Baby Boomers? Yet we don’t read about Boomers retiring from their lucrative, secure, often pensioned positions to seek out “meaningful” work. Quite the opposite. Boomers are leaving non-profits in droves even while delaying retirement in other sectors.

The weak economy is a factor behind Boomer behavior. But we should also keep in mind that those private sector Boomers have enjoyed both meaning and stability—the chance to support a family while protesting a war, or saving for retirement as well as sponsoring Soviet refugees. They did not have to choose between a meaningful life and a secure one. Neither should Generation Y, nor should the families whom we must increasingly delay having.

This “meaningful work” meme finds a corollary in the “love what you do” platitude, so perfectly deflated by Miya Tokumitsu in her recent Slate article. “According to this way of thinking,” she writes, “labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love…Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

As a canard, the meaningfulness meme is more of a justification to normalize lopsided compensation in a gutted middle class. According to a comparative analysis of W-2 wage and population statistics by University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, some 70% of jobs in America pay less than a middle class wage (defined at a Spartan $30k). The kinds of jobs that enable thriving families, communities and democracy are disappearing. When meaningfulness becomes an acceptable substitute for income, the workforce enters a race to bottom. If we embrace that as an ethic, we should expect these trends to continue, and our situation to worsen.

If family-supporting salaries and sustainable careers are really a thing of the past, then our society needs to discover why—and soon.  Instead of whitewashing Millennial insecurity as some historically unprecedented spirit of altruism, we need to find its actual causes, and cure them. Cheerful advice for how to live better among the ruins only hampers that crucial work.

We’re looking for a solution. And while we do, we try to make a difference. Thanks for spreading the word.

But let’s not pretend we’ve had a choice.