Pluralistic: The Swivel-Eyed Loons Have A Point (03 May 2023)

Today's links

A row of silhouetted protesters carrying signs with humorous slogans, e.g. 'I shaved my balls for THIS?' and 'This sign will accomplish NOTHING.'

The Swivel-Eyed Loons Have A Point (permalink)

My latest Locus Magazine column is "The Swivel-Eyed Loons Have A Point," about all the ways that I agree with the Right's paranoid fringe, whom I mostly disagree with:

The impetus for the article was a widely reported, bizarre protest against the plan to create a "15-minute city" in Oxford, England. A 15-minute city is a city where planning strives to ensure that you can walk or bicycle to all the things you need – shopping, leisure, school, work, healthcare – within 15 minutes. It's been the source of unhinged conspiracy theories from the far-right fever swamp, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The protest in Oxford was especially bizarre since it's already basically a 15-minute city – not only is it a college town (most college towns are 15-minute cities), it's a medieval college town, and olde timey people laid out their cities for the convenience of pedestrians (for obvious reasons).

The protesters had a raft of objections to the plans, including a complex system for limiting cars' access to the center of town. This plan rationed vehicular access to the narrow, clogged, medieval roads in town, allowing each resident a few trips through town every week but otherwise requiring them to use transit, or take the ring road that detoured around the city center.

On the one hand, something has to be done. Oxford can't support the vehicle traffic it experiences today, and the amount of traffic is climbing. On the other hand, the protesters worried that the automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) system would just be the start, and that the British state would eventually use its ubiquitous network of traffic cameras as a system of totalitarian control.

And – as the title of the article has it – the swivel-eyed loons have a point. The UK is a snooper's paradise. What guns are to America, CCTVs are to Britain. The country pioneered the use of ubiquitous "security" cameras, even as successive governments passed laws to suspend habeas corpus, criminalize literary works that "glorify" terrorism, created a nationwide system of curfews, and imposed bizarre ASBO orders for "anti-social behavior."

There's nothing wrong with asking questions about how a grid of ubiquitous surveillance cameras can be abused, especially not in England – indeed, these are questions that should have been asked many years ago.

The protesters didn't just worry about movement restrictions and surveillance – they also claimed that these controls would be used on everyday people, while elites were exempted from these measures. Again, the swivel-eyed loons have a point. The UK has a longstanding culture of impunity for its wealthy and powerful people.

Think of Margaret Thatcher's behind-the-scenes maneuvers to keep her top civil servant Peter Hayman from being outed and prosecuted for his sex crimes against children:

Or how King Charles was able to secretly rewrite and block legislation before it was presented to Parliament, in order to feather his own nest:

The protesters claimed that we were steaming towards "climate lockdowns" in which everyday people would have their movements severely limited, while the Great and Good did as they pleased. While there's no reason to believe that "climate lockdowns" are a thing, Britain's long history of creating severe rules for everyday people and then turning a blind eye to elite rulebreaking is undeniable.

After all, it was Dominic Cummings, architect of the covid lockdowns, who violated his own rules, drove 275 miles to see his family, then took a detour to visit a scenic castle, and finally insulted every Briton's intelligence by concocting a story that this was all necessary to confirm that his eyesight was in good working order (no, really).

Cumgate was bad enough, but it turns out that Cummings' boss, then-PM Boris Johnson, threw a series of boozy, illegal parties in his official residence and lied about them – including lying to Parliament. All this while people were banned from visiting dying relatives or attending their funerals.

When the swivel-eyed loons say that measures taken to address climate change will restrict them, but not the rich and powerful, they have a point.

Covid is real. The swivel-eyed loons say that it was made up, or exaggerated, and in any rate, it was a pretext to impose restrictive and extractive policies on everyday people. Covid is real, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a pretext, too.

For example, covid let our bosses declare our homes to be branch offices of their commercial premises, and then use bossware to spy on us and control us in our own homes, turning "work from home" into "live at work":

Covid let monopolistic grocers and consumer packaged goods manufacturers hike prices way beyond anything justified by supply-chain shocks and blame it on inflation:

The oil companies got in on the excuseflation act, too:

The energy sector was especially shameless in the UK, more than doubling the price of fuel:

There is nothing inconsistent about claims that "covid is real" and also that "covid was a pretext to gouge, control and harm everyday people."

Swivel-eyed loons are very worried about vaccines. They say that vaccines are the product of a ruthless, uncaring, murdering pharma sector that is so concentrated that it can easily capture its regulators, who allow it to kill with impunity.

Now, I believe in vaccines and have had five jabs – but the swivel-eyed loons have a point here, too. The pharma sector does put profits ahead of safety, and its regulators do allow the sector to run rampant.

For example, about a decade ago, I went to a specialist – a Harley Street quack – for my chronic pain. The doctor, a very eminent private MD, told me that I should go on daily opioids, for the rest of my life. When I asked whether that was safe, he assured me it was, that addiction concerns were vastly overblown, and that new research had completely overturned the received wisdom. He told me that regulators all over the world had reconsidered their guidance, and approved new, powerful pain drugs, and that I should have no concerns.

Reader, I had concerns. So I "did my own research." I concluded that a powerful family of secretive, reclusive billionaires – the Sacklers – were recklessly pushing pain meds in ways they knew would likely lead to addiction and death. I concluded that this family was growing unbelievably wealthy doing this, and threatening the press into silence to prevent anyone from writing about it (years later, I would be threatened by the Sacklers' lawyers for doing so). I concluded that the regulators who were supposed to guard me from this kind of predation were so cozy with the opioid barons that they were letting them do as they pleased.

In other words, I became an opioid denier.

The covid vaccines underwent a lot of scrutiny from a variety of experts, including independent experts that can't be credibly connected to the pharma giants. There is a wealth of data about them – these medications have been administered to more people, in a shorter timespan, under very transparent conditions, than any other pharma product I can think of.

But despite this, the core claims – that pharma companies can't be trusted to choose safety over profits, and that regulators defer to pharma companies in ways that risk the lives of the public they are meant to protect – are undeniable. The swivel-eyed loons have a point.

Another concern I share with the protesters: the "post-ownership" society. While I'm extremely excited about the idea of public goods, I'm terrified about the rise of a rentier economy.

What's the difference? Well, say that small household tools were public goods. Today my neighbors and I all own genuinely terrible, cheaply made drills that sit in drawers all year except for the 1-2 times that someone needs to make a hole in the wall. But what if our library system bought the highest-quality imaginable drills, designed to be repairable, and to gracefully decompose back into the material stream when they were finally used up? What if these drills were location-aware, and gathered usage telemetry to allow for continuous improvement? I'd love that world. There's even a name for it: "library socialism," coined by the SRSLY WRONG podcast:

It's a vision that's so exciting that I based a whole book around it, "The Lost Cause," my post-Green New Deal novel about the inevitable white nationalist backlash, which is coming out in November:

But there's another version of the "post-ownership society." It's the enshittified, DRM-locked version, where you own nothing and pay rent to use everything. Think of BMW and its fucking subscription seat warmers:

This is the world of another story of mine, "Unauthorized Bread," about the maximal rent-extraction dystopia where your toaster won't work unless you use it with the high-priced, proprietary bread the manufacturer requires:

As much as I'd love to live in a world of circulating abundance, courtesy of library socialism, there's no chance that organizations like the World Economic Forum are planning to create that world – the commercial excitement about "post-ownership" is entirely about rent-extraction, not abundance. We're already halfway to that world, where giant corporations decide which apps you can use, whether you can get your devices repaired, and whether your gadgets will brick themselves when the manufacturer decides it's time for you to upgrade.

One final concern I share with the swivel-eyed loons: the cashless society. Governments all over the world, in collaboration with the largest corporations, are working hard to eliminate cash money in favor of credit and debit cards. The fees these cards entail are usually charged to merchants, but inevitably, merchants pass those fees on to consumers. What's more, the poorer you are, the more likely it is that you will have to pay for a card, and that price goes up when you're very poor.

Letting a highly concentrated payments and financial services sector charge us to use our own money is pure rent-extraction. What's more, a cashless world paves the way for financial censorship, where whistleblowers, sex-workers, refugees and political activists can be neutralized and starved out of existence through payment blockades.

Governments have an answer to this: the Central Bank Digital Currency, or CBDC. CBDCs are basically government-run payment processing and banking services – a way to turn money back into a public good, controlled by public institutions, without the need to pay rent on your cash, or convince a bank manager that you should be allowed to spend money at all.

But the swivel-eyed loons are suspicious of CBDCs, and not without reason. They are concerned that governments will effect the same blockades that the private sector currently uses, using financial embargoes to block their political adversaries. This is an absolutely reasonable concern. It's completely plausible that a UK regime that is willing to illegally deport asylum seekers to Rwanda would also block payments to the lawyers who defend those people, or the supporters who donate to their defense:

Indeed, the swivel-eyed loons' concern over restrictions on their freedom of movement are perfectly reasonable in light of the illegal war the UK – and other rich countries – have waged on refugees, a war where no measure is too depraved or cruel to be deployed against people who are engaged in the most basic defense of human dignity: moving from unsafe places to safer ones.

But while the swivel-eyed loons have a point, they're also missing the point. The surveillance and control latent in CBDCs? That's already here – the private sector's payment processors will hand over data and exert control over anyone, on demand, for any powerful government. A CBDC doesn't change that – all it does is eliminate the rent we pay to use our own money.

There's plenty I disagree with swivel-eyed loons about, but when they claim that our institutions can't be trusted, they are 100% correct. What's more, the critics of conspiratorial thinking who demand that we treat our institutions as trustworthy, without reforming those institutions so that they earn our trust, are as wrong as any swivel-eyed loon.

I end the column with advice for making common ground with swivel-eyed loons: focus on the areas of agreement. Point out that the surveillance, restrictions on movement, corporate oppression, and financial control they fear are already here – for refugees, brown and Black people, sex workers, political dissidents, queer people, and other canary-coalmines for the coming dystopia.

Just as importantly, stop gaslighting conspiratorialists by insisting that surveillance grids aren't dangerous, that pharma companies aren't rapacious murderers, that regulators aren't captured, that financial censorship isn't real, or that crises aren't used as pretexts to make life worse.

Because while the swivel-eyed loons are wrong about 15-minute cities, vaccines, and other unhinged conspiratorial beliefs, they most assuredly have a point.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Why “connecting the dots” is the wrong way to think about stopping terrorism

#10yrsago Homemade laser pops 100 balloons

#10yrsago OpenWorm: an artificial life sim of an earthworm

#10yrsago Running on a long, deep pool of ooblek

#10yrsago Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School Of Medicine’s “White People and the Damage Done”

#10yrsago Easy win for publishing: network and systematize PR and marketing

#5yrsago Mashup Maker: Another entry for the Catalog of Missing Devices

#5yrsago Facebook has repeatedly fired stalker employees, then covered it up

#5yrsago Oakland passes groundbreaking municipal law requiring citizen oversight of local surveillance

#1yrago The Democrats' self-immolating fetish for means-testing

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EDITORIAL REVIEW

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EDITORIAL REVIEW

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. ON SUBMISSION

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. ON SUBMISSION

Latest podcast: How To Make a Child-Safe TikTok

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

  • The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech, Verso, September 2023

  • The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

The excerpt from Red Team Blues in this edition is all rights reserved.

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "Weak Institutions: It's not a fair fight"

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla