Sunday, October 2, 2016

Singularity Watch redux: The Trump

Kwakiutl shaman, 1914, via Retronaut.
Back when the blog was very young, in early 2012, I had a prophetic vision I haven't come back to, of a kind of Singularity, not the well-known Singularity of science fiction in which computers attain consciousness, but a socioeconomic Singularity in which it would be the corporate entities, networks of organic parallel processors, that would become conscious and autonomous things—or were perhaps already there, only too vast and from our microscopic point of view too disorganized (like a molecule from the perspective of an electron) to see.

Only I couldn't quite figure out how they would interact and communicate with each other or with us, other than by the patterns of their spending and receiving money, the only activities a corporation really undertakes on its own power, as opposed to the jobs done by the employees (it was the advent of electronic program trading, carrying on financial transactions thousands of times per second without direct human involvement, along with the concept of the corporation as person with First Amendment speech and religious rights, that got me onto the train of thought).

Anyway there's another and maybe simpler possibility, arising out of a very quirky detail in last night's statement from the Trump campaign:
Mr. Trump is a highly-skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required. That being said, Mr. Trump has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes, sales and excise taxes, real estate taxes, city taxes, state taxes, employee taxes and federal taxes, along with very substantial charitable contributions. Mr. Trump knows the tax code far better than anyone who has ever run for President and he is the only one that knows how to fix it.
That struck me as raising some startling questions, and I wasn't the only one:

But not just his employees. There's a widespread understanding that a publicly owned company has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to maximize the company's profits over and above all other priorities (and a good chance that the understanding is incomplete at best), but taxpayer Donald J. Trump filing jointly with taxpayer Marla Trump in 1995 was not a publicly owned company, was he?

Well, no, but. He was, as he is now, the sole proprietor, chairman, and CEO of a privately owned corporation, the Trump Organization, or, more succinctly, he is the corporation, and the corporation is him. [Update: It's what's called a pass-through corporation, which has no tax bill of its own—all the corporation income "passes through" to him, which is why he's able to keep its revenue secret, as well as avoiding the corporate tax altogether.]

Normally, the sole proprietor of a corporation owes no fiduciary duty to the company and can do with it whatever the hell he pleases, but if you think of Trump as the embodiment of the corporation, in a literal sense, its corporeality, the physical thing of which the corporation consists, then his personal income is the corporation's income, of which he, as chairman of himself, is the trustee.

If he chooses to see it that way. As chairman, he has a fiduciary responsibility to himself as shareholder, and as CEO, he has a fiduciary responsibility to himself as chairman. As trustee, he has a fiduciary responsibility to his heirs, who are his family (he is in something like the position of the executor of his own will), and since the three principal heirs are also the three principal employees, Executive Vice Presidents Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric, his responsibility extends to them. And very much so—if he throws away his money on unnecessary income tax, they can sue him as trustee for willfully damaging their estate. Or he can sue himself on their behalf, or take it to arbitration, a frightening prospect, since as we know he's a very tough negotiator.

All of which seems senseless and abnormal, in the world we think we inhabit, but wouldn't in a world in which the Corporate Singularity had actually taken place, because in that world the Trump Organization incarnated in the unlovely figure of Donald J. Trump would be an independent actor in its own right, "the Trump" as distinct from "the Donald" if you will, with its own distinct interests to which the Donald owes an undivided loyalty by the most sacred of legal bonds. It is the Trump that owns and employs the Donald's family and demands his care, and that owns and employs the Donald himself, and it is the Trump that we mainly see acting in the world, obeyed by the Donald's enthralled body.

If the conscious corporation is now able to incarnate itself in this way, then the question of how it acts in the world is greatly simplified. You can think of it in ethnographic terms as a form of spirit possession; just as the tribal shaman is possessed by the spirit of a deity or dead person, so is the Donald possessed, as he speaks ex cathedra ("from the chair"), by the spirit of the Organization. This would even explain some of the peculiarities of his oratory, the way he focuses exclusively on his location on a matrix of competition, as if constantly needing to find out where in his semantic world he is; the way he works out rhetorical strategies that veer in two directions at once, as the linguist Jennifer Sclafani has noted; and those rhythmic arm movements (pushing in two directions at once) and facial mugging and sniffing, so reminiscent of the medium in trance. And Trump has what the Chinese mediums call "a short life", meaning a kind of shortage of soul-stuff, too much empty space in there, that makes him vulnerable to this sort of occupation.

Trump could be the first case of a corporation that's succeeded in taking over a human body in this way, for that freedom of movement and ability to communicate its demands, and if so he won't be the last. Be afraid.

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