Demanufacturing Consent

In the early 1990s, I was an undergraduate student in La Trobe University’s cinema studies program. The Cold War had just ended and Australia faced “the recession we had to have” (then-Treasurer Hon. Paul Keating). I was introduced to Marxist thinkers such as Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, and to critical feminist theory. Having grown up in rural Bendigo, I didn’t know my base from my superstructure. It was all way over my head.


Ironically, I was actually exploring Gramscian influences via Consolidated’s Nettwerk-released albums such as Play More Music. I read Noam Chomsky and long-form journalism in The Atlantic MonthlyThe New Republic, and The Nation. I saw the Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media in RMIT University’s video library. I briefly became involved in animal rights activism. I discovered that I really liked to write.


In October 1994 I ran for Rabelais student newspaper editor on a broad ticket. The on-campus progressives felt this was a betrayal, and ran a scare campaign (the successful ticket’s editors became notorious a year later). This experience chastened me: when I covered Chomsky’s 1995 lecture tour for Australia’s REVelation Magazine, I was critical of the activists that followed him.


Over the next decade I encountered various people and social movements with activist, utopian potential. I explored the Robert Anton Wilson, the Gurdjieff Work, and the Temple of Set. I wrote for and edited the Disinformation website, linking to sites like CounterPunchMother Jones, and Z Magazine. I spoke at and arranged panels for This Is Not Art: the youth arts festival held in Newcastle, Australia. I was part of the second student cohort in Swinburne University’s Strategic Foresight program which used critical education pedagogy.


However, many of the people involved in these activities did not enjoy a Gramscian ‘march through the institutions’. The dotcom collapse of 2000, the global financial crisis of 2008-09, and the Eurozone crisis of 2011 were turning points that led to the widespread adoption of neoliberal austerity policies. In 2008, I left Disinformation and retreated to a decade of academic publishing, research management work, on-going PhD research, and explored hedge funds and investment management.


This week I’ve been reflecting on how to reconcile critical, left-wing politics and wealth management. Some possible models:


  1. The activist or philanthropic hedge fund manager: George Soros or the more conservative Bill Ackman’s Herbalife ‘short’ and his interaction with social justice movements (see the Netflix documentary Betting On Zero).
  2. Continue to read the critical theory work of people like David Harvey, David Graeber, the late Mark Fisher, McKenzie Wark, Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, Richard Seymour, and Charles Stross.
  3. Take Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s influential work and update it for an era of addictive social media platforms, agitprop memes, and information warfare doctrines.


We’ll see what personal synthesis continues to develop.


I’ve started a model portfolio that I will watch as 2018 unfolds:


  • AUMF – IShares Edge MSCI Australia Multifactor ETF (factsheet).
  • BAF – Blue Sky Alternatives Access Fund (shareholder site).
  • BLA – Blue Sky Alternative Investments Limited (shareholder site).
  • IHVV – IShares S&P 500 AUD Hedged ETF (factsheet).
  • IHWL – IShares Core MSCI World All Cap (AUD Hedged) ETF (factsheet).


The initial impetus for this emerged from reading S.M. Amadae, David Graeber, David Harvey, Michael Hudson, David Michael Kotz, Philip Mirowski, and James Rickards about neoliberal capitalism. These authors converged on the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) as a socio-economic elite that would continue to charge debt and economic rents, as rentiers.


Current and former colleagues have looked to innovations like the sharing economy as a way to deal with growing economic inequality. I came to different conclusions: I spent six years learning how hedge funds and proprietary trading works. The topics ranged from macro plays (Kondratieff winter) and fund flows (Richard D. Wyckoff’s influence on technical analysis) to using global markets to hedge against home bias, and the success of momentum-value combined strategies.


I’ve dubbed the model portfolio RentierCap as it benefits from the FIRE sector. The model portfolio aims to accumulate wealth over a longer period of time than a catalyst-based intraday strategy. It uses Smart Beta and Exchange Traded Funds. I’ve selected BlackRock ETFs (in a nod to the Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalisation), although State Street SPDRs and Vanguard ETFs could be used, and may have lower expense ratios and management fees.

Michael H. Cresswell on United States Public Diplomacy

8 years ago, Monash University’s Dr Ben Eltham and I examined United States public diplomacy during Iran’s 2009 election crisis. 6 years ago, I wrote a critique of the Bush Administration’s Global War on Terror (GWOT) grand strategy.


Now, Florida State University’s Michael H. Creswell has a new paper in Studies In Conflict & Terrorism journal on the Bush, Obama and early Trump Administration experiences with public diplomacy and why GWOT still continues today.


Creswell observes that it is import to examine public diplomacy for effective policy (p. 9):


Examining this subject is thus important primarily for policy reasons. Over the years, the U.S. government has dedicated considerable time and money to SC-PD and related programs. Gauging the efficacy of these efforts is necessary to determine if the time and money devoted to them have been well spent. If these efforts are failing to fulfill their intended purposes, then the government is wasting taxpayer money, squandering political capital, and incurring opportunity costs as well.


After examining the Bush, Obama, and early Trump Administration experiences Creswell concludes (p. 41):


In short, the U.S. government ought to rethink the usefulness of SC-PD in advancing the national interest, which in turn ought to govern the time, effort, and resources devoted to it. The benefits of implementing SC-PD well are relatively modest, while the downsides are fairly steep when it is done poorly. Instead, the government should direct more of its efforts toward designing more effective policies and strategies, as opposed to just trying to make existing ones sound better. This approach will serve the country more advantageously than endlessly tightening the bolts on a machine largely unsuited to the task it was created to perform.

I look forward to the final publication version of Creswell’s interesting journal article.

Exploring Human Values

20 years ago today, in the morning I attended my first Spiral Dynamics workshop in Melbourne, Australia. Dr Don Edward Beck and the late Chris Cowan ran the workshop: one of the last that they would do together. Beck is a PhD student of the social judgment psychologist Muzafer Sherif and is a ‘big picture’ geopolitical thinker; Cowan had a counselling background and was able to situate biopsychosocial systems models in terms of practical life advice. I had just interviewed both Beck and Cowan for my Marketing Magazine cover-story ‘The Advertising Virus‘. I would liaise with Beck until about 2004; I attended several of Cowan’s SD I and II training sessions and corresponded with him until he passed away.


In the afternoon I corresponded with Connell Monette (now Associate Professor at Al Akhawayn University) about our respective research. We discussed the Bektashi and Naqshbandiyya Sufi Orders. At the time, I was reading a secondhand copy of Hasan Shusud’s Masters of Wisdom of Central Asia on the Naqshbandiyya Order. I had also read Idries Shah and received the zikr from Dr Brian and Nina Earl, who were students of Gurdjieff pupil John Godolphin Bennett. I had circled around mystical Islam for several years; unaware of the Deobandi and Salafi jihadist events unfolding in Afghanistan at the time that would later lead to 11th September 2001.

The Advertising Virus

20 years ago, Australia’s Marketing Magazine published my first cover-story: The Advertising Virus on advertising and memes. The article featured interviews with Richard Brodie, and Spiral Dynamics authors Don Edward Beck and Chris Cowan. I later republished the article on the Disinformation website (archived here with some dead links). It will be featured in my forthcoming ebook of 1994-97 New Journalism, Personal Mythologists.

A New Article on Islamic State and Saudi Arabia

Kings College London’s Abdullah Bin Khaled Al Saud has a new article in Terrorism and Political Violence journal on Islamic State’s activities in Saudi Arabia. The abstract:


The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has never ceased targeting, verbally and physically, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While it might be easy to know why, it is harder, but more important, to understand how. Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of a wilaya (province) in the land of the two Holy Mosques in November 2014, thirty-two IS-linked terrorist operations took place in Saudi Arabia. Based on primary source materials produced by IS, and an examination of its footprint in Saudi Arabia, this article explains the calculus behind IS’s strategy and objectives in Saudi, shows the main themes of its narrative and how it tailors its strategic communications campaign to the specific historical and social context of the country, and illustrates how it tries to exploit and claim the Saudi religious heritage. The article also examines to what extent IS’s activities and operations reflect its rhetoric and purported strategy, describes the structure it adopts inside the Kingdom, and demonstrates why the momentum of its violent campaign has faltered in recent months.

Monash SPS Symposium Presentation on Fourth Generation Strategic Culture

On Wednesday, I’m giving a snapshot presentation on Conceptualising Fourth Generation Strategic Culture for the Monash SPS Symposium. This covers material from my PhD’s Chapter 1. It also covers some further development of my research program. Thanks to the SPS Symposium committee for organising the event.


Further details:


Disciple: Strategic Studies, Terrorism Studies.


Key words: strategic culture, research program, conceptual framework


Abstract: Strategic culture emerged from United States think tanks in the late 1970s as a comparative framework in strategic studies. Early proponents such as Jack Snyder, Colin S. Gray, and Ken Booth each sought to understand foreign decision-making on the use of force. In 1995, Harvard University’s Alastair Iain Johnston conceptualised three generations of strategic culture theory-building in an influential International Security journal article called ‘Thinking About Strategic Culture’.


This presentation (1) responds to Johnston’s framework to explore issues of generational selection, change, and continuity; and (2) proposes a new fourth generation that I trace to Jeffrey S. Lantis’ ‘constructivist’ turn in 2002. Lantis’ research and active sub-field building (such as with the United States-based Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the International Studies Association) involves national security policymakers using strategic culture to understand emerging trans-national security threats in a possibly multipolar world.


I outline a developing research program which develops strategic culture frameworks, qualitative case studies, and causal inference methods. Current research focuses on the possibility of strategic culture in terrorist organisations. Recent developments in (nuclear) complex deterrence, economic statecraft, and terrorism studies provide the necessary and sufficient context for strategic culture research to have greater policymaker relevance.


Update: The snapshot presentation audio can be downloaded here and the slides here. Thanks to Dr Pete Lentini and Dr Tom Chodor who were discussants.

Bridging Hollywood and Harvard

Recently, I had a Facebook thread exchange with Maree Conway and Stephen McGrail on the future of universities. The default, neoliberal future seems to be a small professoriate and senior management with defined benefit superannuation plans, and a large contract-based pool of academic and administrative contingent labour. It’s less an Ivory Tower and more like the ‘labour hire’ model of private equity firms.


My preferred future is one based in part on knowledge and skills-based talent. There’s still room in this vision for teaching excellence and for intangible asset-based revenue streams from intellectual property rights. The model is Hollywood: Entourage and Michael Clayton perhaps with a dose of Better Call Saul. I explored this world for about 8 years whilst at Australia’s Victoria University working first on academic research program development and then on managing research contracts.


Violaine Roussel’s new study Representing Talent: Hollywood Agents and the Making of Movies (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017) offers a detailed model of how talent management functions. Her book includes a study of the initiatory pathway that new agents undergo in Hollywood and when they join a creative agency. It also discusses skills cultivation and negotiation strategies. As a situated ethnography it will be helpful for research managers who want to bridge Hollywood and Harvard, and who desire to make some good deals.

A New Article on Effective Terrorist Propaganda

Shannon C. Houck, Meredith A. Repke, and Lucian Gideon Conway III have a new article in the Journal of Policing, Intelligence, and Counter Terrorism about effective terrorist propaganda. Here’s the abstract:


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) became an increasingly powerful terrorist organisation in a relatively short period of time, drawing more recruits than its former affiliate, Al Qaeda. Many have attributed ISIL’s successful expansion in part to its extensive propaganda platform. But what causes terrorist groups to be effective in their communication to the public? To investigate, we examined one aspect of terrorists’ rhetoric: Integrative complexity. In particular, this historical examination provides a broad integrative complexity analysis of public statements released by key members of ISIL and Al Qaeda over a 10-year period when ISIL was rapidly growing as a terrorist entity (2004–2014). Findings revealed that (a) ISIL demonstrated less complexity overall than Al Qaeda (p < .001) and (b) ISIL became increasingly less complex over this focal time period (p < .001), while Al Qaeda’s complexity remained comparatively stable (p = .69). Taken together, these data suggest that as ISIL grew in size and strength between 2004 and 2014 – surpassing Al Qaeda on multiple domains such as recruitment, monetary resources, territorial control, and arms power – it simultaneously became less complex in its communication to the public.