How to fix the NBN

Australia, Politics

James Calligeros

It’s finally 2020, and as the NBN rollout starts to wind down now is a good time to take stock of just what the flipping heck happened over the last 10 years. We were promised in 2009 that by the end of this year we would have an all-fibre access network to replace Telstra’s and Optus’s dilapidated twisted pair and HFC access networks. Instead, thanks to some absurdly transparent political manoeuvring around 2013, what we actually got was… Telstra’s dilapidated twisted pair and HFC access networks under new management. And while this was good for my Telstra shares, it was and still is an absolutely diabolical, unforgivable, politically-charged sabotage of objectively good national infrastructure, intended to do nothing more than prop up Rupert Murdoch’s crumbling media empire and to Fortnite dance and then piss on the political legacies of Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy.

Since this change in strategy, even mentioning the NBN in less technical circles gets nothing but an exasperated groan and tales of incessant dropouts, slow peak hour speeds, and a government agency intent on flatly denying that there’s a problem. This, as has already been discussed, is by design. But now that the rollout is finished, what can be done to actually fix the problem?

Opacity

The biggest problem with the NBN right now has nothing to do with technology. With the change of government in 2013 came a new board for NBNCo, one that the company’s two shareholders (being the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Telecommunications) knew would carry out their will without question. Gone was Dr Mike Quigley and his corporate ethos of transparency and accountability and in came Ziggy Switkowski, an ex-Telstra executive with ties to the government. According to Switkowski and his new board of ex-Telstra executives, the first and foremost priority for NBNCo was to immediately redact all commercial documents pertaining to the rollout. From September 9 2013 until mid 2014, after the company’s “independent strategic review” was completed, no internal document was available for viewing. When they became available again, most details that interested parties had become accustomed to having access were redacted and deemed to be “commercial in confidence” – information such as fault incidences, revenues and services connected. This included most of the strategic review itself, including its frames of reference and key assumptions made when coming to the decisions it recommended (which conveniently enough for the government involved doing exactly what their election manifesto promised). During this time, all construction work was suspended, and an undisclosed sum was spent on rebranding the company with all references to NBNCo being replaced with nbn™. A worthy use of taxpayer funds from the Strong Economic Managers.

By the time the FTTN/FTTB/FTTC/HFC/anything-that-isn’t-FTTP rollout was underway, this corporate culture had become entrenched. Even nbn™’s customers, the ISPs, were left in the dark about most operational matters to the point where they were entirely powerless to deal with end user complains about slow speeds and dropouts. ISPs would refer customers to nbn™ who would deny any problem on their end and flick them back to the ISP. This is a problem that persists even today, despite the ACCC’s intervention forcing RSPs and nbn™ to publish speed data and refund customers unable to achieve the speed tier they’re paying for.

In virtually every HFC deployment around the world users are allowed to access their modem’s statistics page, which gives extremely important information about the quality of the signal entering the home. On the NBN, access to this page is disabled as soon as the CM8200 gets its configuration parameters from the remote end. There is absolutely no reason to do this other than to obfuscate problems with the HFC network, problems which the company denied for 3 years until they became so widespread and so disruptive that they were forced to put the entire rollout on hold to deal with them. This “pause” as they called it took the better part of a year and still problems persist in certain areas on the HFC network. Had these network metrics been available for public viewing (as they should be) the company would have been forced to act much sooner. People only noticed because Telstra Cable and Foxtel share the same network infrastructure, so those services were also impacted by nbn™’s activities.

Transparency is a necessary facet of accountability and right now nbn™ are doing all that they legally can to avoid being accountable to anyone. The simple fact is that operational transparency highlights the great flaws in what has been deployed when compared with what was meant to be deployed.

The problem with this pathetic attempt to save the Liberal Party’s face using taxpayer money is that it leaves consumers and ISPs totally powerless to resolve disputes with nbn™ unless nbn™ deems the dispute to be “reasonable”. Currently, the criteria set by nbn™ for a “faulty” FTTN service is either a downstream sync speed lower than 20Mbps or 16 (yes, sixteen) dropouts per day with no more than 1 hour between dropouts. If a service syncs at 21Mbps or only drops out 15 times a day, it is considered to be within spec by nbn™, regardless of whether or not there is actually an issue with the connection. The company’s contempt for the end user and their own customers is on full display here. The entire corporate structure exists not to facilitate the rollout of a National Broadband Network, but to actively frustrate that process.

The only way to get the NBN truly back on track is to simply demolish the entire corporate structure and return to a positive culture of operational transparency and accountability, free from the influence of ex-Telstra corporate stooges with deep links to high profile members of any particular political party. Like any government body, nbn™ should be accountable not only to its two shareholders but to everyone in the nation as it used to be. The NBN is being run in a manner similar to Home Affairs and ASIO which is quite simply disgusting for a national infrastructure project that’s been forced on us through legislation.

Productivity (but only for me and my mates)

Public-private partnerships are a spook. And in the case of the NBN, they’re a bigger spook than the bogeyman. There’s not a lot to say here except for that the NBN is being built by layer after layer after layer of contractors, each one taking their cut off the top before passing down what’s left until the guy actually splicing the fibre on the street is on barely above minimum wage. This was a decision made in the very early days of the rollout, as it was decided that amassing and training a workforce would be too costly and take too long. This decision, however, was a poor one. The only reason the private sector was so quick to get going was quite simply because they cheated.

There are people working on the HFC network right now who failed to demonstrate the basic competency of crimping an F connector yet were given their ticket to perform work by dodgy RTOs in exchange for a case of beer. These same RTOs also give their students the answers to the theoretical components involved in becoming certified, leading to a fundamental misunderstanding of standard practice or how various network elements are meant to behave.

The contractors themselves are complicit in this workforce deficiency, too. In order to cut costs (not to save the Government money, but to increase profit margins), most contractors exclusively subcontract to 457 visa holders. There have been instances of fully qualified Australian citizens being fired simply to make way for temporary work visa holders. There has been at least one instance of this occurring because the citizen refused to ignore workplace health and safety regulations where his 457 colleague did not.

The NBN was meant to see Australia return to a publicly owned last-mile access network, as we had until Telstra was privatised. Before said privatisation, Telecom Australia had an entirely in-house workforce of highly trained professionals building and maintaining their network. Such was the quality of this workforce that industry giants such as Ericsson, Siemens and Alcatel would frequently visit Telecom Australia’s various training facilities around the country and take our practices back to Europe to share with the world. Telecom Australia literally set new world standards in telecommunications practice. nbn™ on the other hand is barely capable of meeting existing ones. The company has virtually no quality control measures in place and is entirely at the mercy of cowboy contractors just looking for a free ride on a government gravy train.

Now that the rollout is ostensibly complete, and as the various contracts nbn™ has with its contractors start to lapse, the company must shift towards an internally trained workforce of linesmen, engineers and technicians in order to properly service (and upgrade) this monstrosity they have built with at least a modicum of quality control. Being a telecommunications technician was once an honourable and respected career path for young men, and Telecom Australia was one of the country’s most enjoyable companies to work for. There is absolutely nothing stopping nbn™ from carrying forward Telecom’s legacy save for a boardroom and government entirely hellbent on transferring wealth from the taxpayer to their mates.

High standards (for 1995)

During Dr Quigley’s tenure at the top of the NBNCo corporate structure, the company actually did look something like a true heir to Telecom’s legacy. Hundreds of millions was invested in research and development, and from this came new standards for large-scale FTTP rollouts. NBNCo was instrumental in popularising the adoption of “skinny” fibre, ribbon-like fibre optic cables that are both cheaper to manufacture and easier to deploy in the field. NBNCo also innovated on removing the need for a Fibre Distribution Hub, instead replacing it with a more compact multiport joint closure which fits inside a standard double-length Telstra pit. By April of 2013, the average cost per premises of deploying FTTP had dropped from the initial $2,400 during the rollout’s infancy to a meagre $1,100 in brownfields – already existing homes. Interestingly, as soon as the government changed this figure seemed to increase by precisely 4 times to conveniently make it more expensive than the average cost per premises of FTTN (which now costs over $5,000 per premises in some cases). But I digress.

With the change of rollout strategy, no longer was it necessary to continually innovate or spend money on creating new standards. Telstra had all the standards handily ready to go. In the case of the HFC network, such is the legacy of Telstra’s standards that the brand new tags used by nbn™ to label customer drop cables and outside plant refer to Telecom Australia with the orange and blue T, branding which has been defunct since 1995.

nbn™ were also happy to spruik the latest innovation in HFC technology, DOCSIS 3.1. Despite DOCSIS 3.1 being objectively good, it will never live up to the company’s expectations. Since remedial work on the HFC network started, the company has been deploying ARRIS 1GHz and 1.2GHz rated equipment in the street – a requirement for full DOCSIS 3.1 compliance. However, inside those countless millions of beige nbn™ boxes and grey Telstra boxes on the sides of homes lives one of the many weak links in the HFC deployment – the isolator. When Telstra first rolled out the HFC network, the original DOCSIS specifications used only a small portion of the available bandwidth on a coaxial cable, and as such built the network to a lowest common denominator specification of 750MHz. And despite nbn™’s insistence on activating DOCSIS 3.1, they continue to use the Telstra-prescribed 750MHz isolators in almost all brand new installations simply because this was Telstra’s accepted practice. While DOCSIS 3.1 will work across these isolators, nbn™ will find themselves running into problems as they try increase bandwidth across the network past 750MHz for “Full Duplex” operation. The most insulting part is that Telstra’s HFC network was second-rate even in the 90s compared to most of the world, so nbn™ are relying on decades-old standards that weren’t even standard in their heyday.

As if “adapting” these standards wasn’t bad enough, how about outright plagiarising them? When shifting to a mix of technologies, it was necessary for nbn™ to create documents outlining and explaining the various technical intricacies of this new bastard network. One such document is the Authority to Alter, or A2A, which details what parts of the network on a customer’s property registered cablers are and are not allowed to mess with. Every version of this document, save for the most recent, was a simple copy-paste of Telstra’s old A2A documents, most of which date back to the early-mid 2000s, when Telstra stopped deploying new network assets. In the grand scheme of things this is pretty minor, but it illustrates just how determined nbn™ are to be as wholly unremarkable and ambitious as they possibly can.

nbn™’s entire corporate structure is arguably the biggest problem with the rollout post-2013. A government enterprise sworn to secrecy by its shareholders to obfuscate the utter inadequacy of its “Cheaper, Faster, Better” network. A government enterprise hijacked by the Liberal Party and their Telstra cronies to transfer wealth from the taxpayer to their private contractor friends. A government enterprise so blatant in their goal to simply continue on with Telstra’s mediocrity that they go so far as to reuse and outright steal Telstra materials and documents from 20 years ago. Sure, there are technical problems with the NBN that we will to, but these all stem from the deficient corporate culture imposed on the project by the Liberal Party. Even with the multitude of technical failings wrought upon the nation by the socioeconomic vandals in the Liberal caucus, by putting an end to the absolute rort that is the public-private partnership, increasing internal transparency and resuming the in-house development of work standards and methods, the NBN could slowly and steadily become something that Australia can actually take pride in. We were once leading the entire world in telecommunications, pushing the boundaries of connectivity and setting trends in the industry globally. We can return to this role, or we can continue playing court jester to countries like Romania and Kenya.

Part 2: This time, it’s technical

Having now fixed nbn™’s culture problem (and re-rebranded it to NBNCo), we’re ready to get into the minutiae of actually fixing this travesty of a network. We’re going to make some key assumptions that will make this process a lot less painful.

  • The NBN is put on budget as a national infrastructure expense (it is currently ostensibly paid for with government bonds)
  • The Statement of Expectations has been altered to remove the profit motive (at least for now)

Basically, we’re assuming that money is no object. With the NBN now on the Government’s budget, it can direct funds directly to the project. This is currently not possible, and NBNCo has to ask its shareholders (currently Mattias Cormann and Paul Fletcher) for cash injections. This doesn’t work when the Government’s core election promise was to achieve a budget surplus, and doubly doesn’t work when they don’t actually care about the NBN.

Altering the SoE allows NBNCo to just plough money into the network with no expectation of making a return on it. Some good the expectation of a return is doing now anyway, the company only recently posted a record $2bn loss. Good news is that this doesn’t have to be permanent, and as part of the technical solution for fixing this steaming pile, we will also be looking at how the NBN makes money.

Considering the needless complexity of the current rollout, which precludes a simple catch-all solution, we will be going through each current rollout technology individually. We will briefly discuss each technology, why it sucks, and what can be done to make it not suck.

Fibre to the Node: The fifth horseman

By now, everyone in the country should be aware of what a mess Fibre to the Node (FTTN) is. Originally touted by Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull to be a cheaper, as-good alternative to Labor’s Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) network, the technology has been nothing short of a spectacular failure. Such was the magnitude of its failure that very shortly into its rollout, NBNCo (and PM Turnbull) were forced to drastically change tack, and began casing out the possibility of eating up Telstra’s and Optus’s old Cable networks.

Dr Ziggy Switkowski, the current NBNCo chair, fronted a 2003 Senate inquiry into the state of broadband access in Australia. It was at this inquiry that he declared Telstra’s phone line network to be, “Five minutes to midnight,” basically dead in the water (sometimes literally). It is this same Dr Ziggy Switkowski who was charged by the Liberal Party to roll out an FTTN network utilising this same Telstra phone line network.

FTTN is really only suitable for short lengths of copper. Fibre is run to a box somewhere in the neighbourhood, in which DSL line cards are installed and connected to the various phone lines running to houses. The flavour of DSL used in FTTN drops in speed precipitously with distance from the node, performing around the same as traditional ADSL 2+ at around 1km of line length from the node, assuming the line is in good nick.

NBNCo found out very quickly that Dr Switkowski was not lying for a change in 2003 and many, many phone lines in this country simply not suitable for upgrading to FTTN. Regardless, the Government made the company forge ahead until complaints of slow speeds and dropouts became so deafeningly loud that they could no longer ignore FTTN’s shortcomings. Today, the FTTN footprint covers about 30% of the population, a far cry from the original plan of around 76% coverage. Around 15,000 premises in the FTTN footprint are unable to achieve even 25Mbps download, the speed that was promised to be guaranteed by 2016, and the minimum speed in the Government’s own SoE. The ACCC recently came down like a ton of bricks on both NBNCo and the ISPs for failing to identify customers who were paying for services they could not achieve on FTTN. Customers were being charged for a 50Mbps service while barely receiving half, or even a quarter of that in some cases.

There’s no two ways around it. The entire FTTN rollout was, and remains, a total failure. There is only one logical solution, and that is to completely tear it out and replace it with FTTP. Given NBNCo’s SoE mandates them to provide a baseline of 25Mbps to all premises in the country, we would naturally start with those 15,000 locations unable to attain 25Mbps downstream. NBNCo have access to the line condition of every single FTTN connection in the country, and as such once the priority sub-25Mbps connections are fully remediated, they can assign crews to overbuild the FTTN in order of line quality from worst to most acceptable.

Replacing FTTN should be the number one priority on NBNCo’s list, given that is absolutely the weakest link in the fixed line footprint and responsible for 30% of the country receiving a subpar broadband experience.

Replacing FTTN with FTTP is the only sensible option. FTTP, due to its use of fibre optics all the way into the home, guarantees that the end user receives the speed they pay for, be it 25Mbps or 2500Mbps. FTTP is also future proof; higher speeds can be unlocked simply by replacing the electronics on each end of the fibre, and current fibre optic technology is capable of delivering a throughput of around 27Tbps (yes, terabits per second) over a single connection. Most importantly however, FTTP is by far the most reliable communications technology available. Unaffected by the weather, power outages or even simply your neighbour’s cheap solar inverter (believe it or not, solar inverters have been responsible for many DSL interference problems), FTTP can remain active pretty much indefinitely with no degradation of service, a welcome change for FTTN users stuck on drop-out prone lines.

With FTTN out of the picture, NBNCo actually has a shot at delivering on its Statement of Expectations, as well as delivering quality telecommunications to a segment of the population which has been totally neglected for the past seven years. With access to the Internet being viewed as a basic utility by most now, it is a disservice to the nation to leave people in the FTTN footprint high and dry with last-century broadband speeds and third world electricity grid levels of reliability.

Hybrid Fibre Coaxial: The most least-shit

In 2015, it became apparent to both the Government and the board of NBNCo that continuing to push forward with FTTN would result in a national uprising. Interestingly, the revelation that FTTN is untenable came at around the same time Malcolm Turnbull usurped the Prime Ministership from Tony Abbott.

Returning to FTTP, as per Labor’s original plan, was simply politically unacceptable. The only other technology capable of delivering high speed, fixed line broadband is Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC), but HFC networks are ruinously expensive to deploy, and in the process of being replaced with FTTP in the rest of the world. Luckily for the Government, the solution to the cost problem was right there, buried under a big T. But first, a history lesson. A very long – but ultimately necessary – history lesson.

In the mid to late 1990s, Telstra and Optus were engaged in a fierce battle over pay TV supremacy. Optus was first to market with an HFC network, carrying the OptusVision service. Telstra followed suit, entering a partnership with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox. FOX would bring the subscription TV content and TELstra would bring the infrastructure required to deliver it. Optus’s network utilised a Motorola-designed system called CableComm to also deliver telephony services over HFC, in a bid to rid themselves of Telstra’s monopoly on communications. Since Telstra had no need for such a system, it designed its network predominately for Foxtel. Optus and Telstra then locked themselves into what amounted to little more than a dick waving contest. Rollout targets were aggressive, and both networks’ footprints expanded massively over the course of relatively little time. In order to meet their aggressive rollout targets, however, Optus and Telstra both elected to cut corners in the design of their networks. These cut corners are irrelevant for the delivery of cable television, but become very important later.

In 1996, the first version of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) standard was released, allowing HFC networks, which were at the time used almost exclusively for cable television, to act as a broadband data network. Since that time, DOCSIS has become the industry standard for broadband delivery over HFC networks.

Telstra were able to call Optus’s bluff with their near infinite cash reserves and when the latter was acquired by SingTel, who pulled the plug on further HFC investment, Telstra too saw no further need to continue rolling out their own network. Both networks were left pretty much to rot for the next 20-odd years, with only essential maintenance being performed to keep services running.

Instead of seeing an old, tangled up mess of rotting coaxial cables, NBNCo saw a free lunch. A free lunch that cost them around $3bn when all was said and done.

After purchasing Optus’s HFC network for $800m, NBNCo quickly found out that not only had Optus neglected to perform routine maintenance, but they had also seriously oversubscribed the network in an effort to maintain revenue in the face of relentless competition from Foxtel/Telstra. Contention ratios across the network were usually well in excess of 600:1. That is, 600 homes sharing a single link back to the exchange. Due to the lack of upgrades over the years, this shared link was usually 1Gbps, meaning that each subscriber on a given coaxial segment was allotted 1.7Mbps downstream. Optus’s network in its twilight years was plagued with complaints of poor speeds and poor reliability. After running trials in Redcliffe, NBNCo deemed Optus’s network so far gone that it was beyond cost-effective remediation, and ultimately elected to abandon it completely, to be replaced with yet another worthless stop-gap technology, Fibre to the Curb/Kerb (FTTC). $800m down the gurgler so far.

The company also purchased the Telstra HFC network – this time for an undisclosed amount via a renegotiated $11bn asset lease deal, originally put in place to allow NBNCo the use of Telstra’s cable ducts and pits, as well as space in their exchanges, fees for remediating unsafe pits and compensation for the forced decommissioning of its HFC and PSTN assets. This renegotiated deal instead put in place an asset transfer for the HFC and PSTN networks, and awarding them even more public money for the privilege. Most importantly, it also gave Telstra a spectrum license to continue using the HFC network to deliver Foxtel indefinitely, with NBNCo to foot the maintenance bill for this. It is estimated that the total value of the HFC asset transfer was somewhere between $1.1bn and $1.3bn.

Someone neglected to tell NBNCo that Telstra’s network design was based on two very major assumptions that made it unsuitable for what NBNCo required of it.

  • The network would be used predominately for pay TV.
  • The network would have a takeup rate of around 30% of passed premises

The first assumption allowed Telstra to get away with using lower bandwidth equipment on the coaxial side of the network since Foxtel only uses a relatively small amount of bandwidth compared to the total a regular HFC network would be capable of. The second allowed Telstra to under-provision the network relative to the number of premises it passed. Simply put, these were cost cutting measures intended to allow Telstra to keep up with and leapfrog Optus’s HFC rollout. Telstra were able to get away with providing DOCSIS services since there was so much spare spectrum available on the network on frequencies that their cheap equipment could still work happily with, and services were so expensive anyway that few in the network’s footprint took up said services.

Having not been made aware of these shortcomings, NBNCo gleefully began relentlessly connecting new customers to the network. CEO Bill Morrow said that the purchase of the HFC network would “…shave years off the rollout…” This was before people started noticing their Foxtel and Telstra Cable services starting to sporadically drop out, when previously they had been stable for years.

HFC is a shared medium. That is, end users all share a single coaxial trunk cable back to the optical node. With each end user you add to this coaxial ‘segment,’ you lower the signal level to each of the other users. NBNCo tried taking an HFC network barely suitable for 30% uptake to 100% uptake without making the necessary upgrades to the equipment in the field. As signal levels across the network fell, dropouts, fuzzy Foxtel pictures and slow speeds became more and more apparent until late in 2017, NBNCo announced that it would be stopping all new HFC connections until further notice to investigate the issues.

A prolonged investigation into the cause of these disruptions made multiple significant findings:

  • Telstra had used low quality fittings and connectors, and had not replaced old ones when they had worn out
  • The amplifiers and nodes Telstra used were ill-equipped to handle the frequencies NBNCo were forced to use (Foxtel and BigPond taking the good spectrum for themselves)
  • Telstra had oversubscribed the network, but to a lesser degree than Optus
  • Poor maintenance standards meant that the network was prone to RF noise ingress
  • Much of the network’s declared footprint was not serviceable and no HFC infrastructure actually existed where it was said to

All of these physical shortcomings were compounded as NBNCo went around disturbing the infrastructure and adding connections. NBNCo kept new connections on ice for around a year while they conducted expensive remedial works. This work included installing new nodes, replacing faulty 30 year old amplifiers and taps, fixing noise ingress points, replacing old connectors and fittings and building out the network to fill in the gaps in the footprint. The sales freeze was ostensibly lifted in April 2018, however many were still not able to order a service until around August of the same year. This “pause” in the HFC rollout as it has come to be known cost the company $900m, bringing the total amount of taxpayer money stolen on HFC to around $3bn, with the total rollout cost blowing out to $51bn. This is $8bn more than the projected cost of a full FTTP rollout.

It is accepted in the industry that while HFC/DOCSIS itself is still more than suitable for delivering high speed broadband, when done correctly. The assumption that simply buying Telstra’s and Optus’s HFC would be a silver bullet for NBNCo comes from data on HFC networks in the United States – HFC networks which cover most of the population, have take-up rates nearing 100%, and as such are aggressively maintained and upgraded by their operators. The Australian HFC networks could not have been further from their US counterparts if they tried. The Telstra/NBNCo network is, to put it simply, an obsolete and failing 90s network with some late 2000s quality of life features gaffer taped on to keep it barely functioning for another 5 years at best; good taxpayer money after bad in the Liberal Party’s pursuit of facial salvation.

This failed abortion of a network is currently the designated technology for again around 30% of the population. Unlike FTTN, however, DOCSIS is unaffected by distance from the node, is mostly immune to noise ingress and doesn’t care if Uranus is in retrograde. As such, the service quality is much, much higher and a full FTTP overbuild is largely unwarranted. That said, in its current form, the HFC network will never be able to keep up with bandwidth demand. NBNCo are already having difficulty getting 1Gbps plans on the network, plans which have existed on the company’s own FTTP network since early 2013.

So, without throwing the proverbial chessboard and starting over, how do we fix the HFC network? Luckily, the people who design, and the US network operators who ratify the DOCSIS standards are a little more forward thinking than NBNCo could ever hope to be in its current iteration. Built in to the latest version of DOCSIS are a number of enhancements which prepare compliant HFC networks for the future.

One of the major limiting factors to HFC network performance is the number of amplifiers between the node and the end user. Current best practice is to utilise an N+0 architecture. That is, the Node plus zero amplifiers between it and the end user’s cable modem. The NBNCo network is currently at an N+3 architecture, which makes it largely incompatible with the latest DOCSIS standard, DOCSIS 3.1. This is especially true if you take into consideration that there remain many of the old Telstra/Foxtel amplifiers still in service, as they were deemed to be working to an acceptable level for DOCSIS 3.0. While NBNCo have been progressively enabling DOCSIS 3.1 on select parts of the network, this is mostly due to its efficiency gains rather than for increasing performance for the end user. D3.1’s increased efficiency means that NBNCo can maintain current performance without performing any physical upgrades to the network.

One of the most important and effective upgrades NBNCo will need to make in the immediate future is moving the physical plant to N+0 Distributed Access Architecture (DAA). N+0 takes fibre deep into the HFC network, maximising network performance by minimising the amount of noise-prone and lossy coaxial cable between the node and the user, as well as lowering contention ratios to a level where the shared bandwidth is not even noticeable.

N+0 and DAA go hand in hand. Where N+0 deals purely with the physical side of the network, DAA is an upgrade that fundamentally shifts how the network itself is provisioned. Traditional HFC networks have the Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) and RF combiner located centrally at the headend. The RF “DOCSIS signal” generated by the CMTS is then modulated into an analog light beam and sent along the fibre to the node, where it is converted back into an electrical RF signal. DAA introduces a profound paradigm shift with the Remote PHY (R-PHY) unit. This device replaces the CMTS at the headend, and instead resides in the node itself. Instead of the “DOCSIS signal” being generated at the headend and sent to the node in an analog fashion, it is instead generated at the node which talks to the headend digitally for service provisioning. In other words, the communication between the headend and the R-PHY is fully compatible with PON, the fibre architecture used to roll out FTTP.

DAA has huge implications for NBNCo, as it gives the company a simple and cheap upgrade path to full FTTP for when the time comes. Upgrading an N+3 DOCSIS 3.0 network is senseless, as the fibre component is incompatible with PON, and the whole lot would either need to be duplicated or upgraded in situ, which would cause mass service disruptions. By being fully PON compatible, DAA allows NBNCo to simply attach the fibre equivalent of a double-adaptor to the input of the R-PHY device and bypass it with FTTP while leaving DOCSIS services active and uninterrupted. In most cases, this ‘multiport’ is installed at the time the DAA fibre is installed in anticipation of FTTP upgrades. DAA also allows NBNCo to reduce maintenance costs across the HFC network, which is vital as the company currently has a network-related operating expenditure of around $2.3bn. Removing expensive, old, power hungry and short-lived active HFC equipment can lower this figure significantly. Importantly, it also lowers the cost of deploying FTTP to new developments in the HFC footprint, which common sense would dictate should receive FTTP from the get-go.

In terms of end user outcomes, DAA enables the efficient and reliable delivery of ultra-speed broadband plans in excess of 10Gbps download, whereas there would be no hope of delivering such services over the current N+3 DOCSIS 3.0 architecture. For those users who engage in NBNCo’s Technology Choice Program, it also makes upgrades to FTTP significantly cheaper, encouraging its uptake before even NBNCo are ready to do the upgrades themselves. Cynics would also note that every user-pays upgrade NBNCo makes through the TCP is one less the company has to pay for when it goes around upgrading the network itself.

Fixed Wireless: The ugly stepchild

It’s no great secret that the LTE component of the rollout has been spectacularly mismanaged. Utilising LTE to get high speed broadband access to properties too costly and too remote for wireline technologies was a good idea, however as with all things of this nature, cost cutting has led to a service so broken and so unreliable that many within its footprint elect to retain their ADSL services. Since switching to Fixed Wireless NBN, Whirlpool user Greg Lehey has experienced no less than 288 hours of downtime. Stories like this have emerged all over the country, with people reporting their services simply become unavailable during peak times. This is mostly due to bandwidth constrains imposed by the ineherent design of the NBN LTE network.

One of the biggest oversights in relation to the LTE network is the lack of backhaul capacity from each tower to its respective POI. As LTE is a shared medium, multiple users must share a single link back to the NBN Point of Interconnect, or POI. This is a colocation facility, where user traffic is handed off to the various ISPs’ networks. In order to cut costs, NBNCo elected to underprovision the amount of backhaul from each tower to the POI. Normally, it would be pretty trivial to increase backhaul capacity, as it would simply be a matter of increasing the bandwidth of the fibre optic link to the tower. However, NBNCo’s cost cutting method is so spectacularly stupid that this is simply not a possibility.

Instead of running a fibre optic cable to each tower for backhaul capacity, NBNCo has elected to use a wireless microwave link for many towers in a hub and spoke model. A microwave link is established between the POI and a master tower, which then divides the bandwidth of that link between multiple slave towers, which then connect actual end users to the network. This makes it incredibly hard to upgrade backhaul capacity to each tower, as it involves replacing expensive antennas or increasing the wireless bandwidth used, which often (always) isn’t possible due to extremely limited wireless spectrum available, and legally mandated power limits on wireless transmitters. While NBNCo have claimed that there exists a list of towers and backhaul sites that require upgrading, there is little to no evidence that they have actually undertaken any such work. People are simply being left with the choice of either braving the peak hour congestion, or retaining their ADSL services and thus being forced to spend more than they need to. Regional areas within the LTE footprint are historically underserviced with DSL too, often only being able to get a connection from Telstra.

There are two solutions for remediating the LTE network. Obviously, the most pressing matter is getting sufficient backhaul to each tower in order to alleviate the peak hour congestion and inherent unreliability that comes with using a cascaded microwave link. The only way to do this is to run fibre optic backhaul to each tower. This is an absolute necessity if NBNCo ever hope to make Fixed Wireless a viable solution for regional broadband access, and should have been the only backhaul method specified in the Network Design Rules. Not only will it remove the weakest link in the network in terms of bandwidth capacity, it will also allow NBNCo to free up the wireless spectrum they currently use on backhaul and reallocate it to increasing bandwidth on the consumer side of the network.

Another pressing matter for the LTE rollout is tower oversubscription. Much like with HFC, there are simply too many end users competing for bandwidth from a single tower. Of course, with multiple towers sharing a microwave link back to the POI, this is simply a cascade effect of underprovisioning of backhaul capacity. However, assuming we have now supplied each tower with its own fibre optic link, we can address this issue by splitting down towers, again much in the same way an HFC node split works. Assuming a 1:2 split, this would mean an effective doubling of available bandwidth for each end user between their premises and the tower. This increased bandwidth availability then allows NBNCo to offer faster plans across the network, making the same plans available across both wireline and fixed wireless technologies

Another minor consideration to make is the rising adoption of 5G, and the improvements it brings over LTE. At this stage, such an upgrade would be purely optional, and made in consideration of private competition. The expense necessary to cover regional Australia with 5G for either NBNCo or a private competitor would be ruinous, and so we will not consider this other than to remark that it is a possible (and likely) upgrade path in the medium to long term. With the bandwidth increases we have made above, LTE is still perfectly capable of delivering high speed broadband for some time to come, and any 5G upgrade would either be purely marketing or for increasing bandwidth efficiency to enable a greater number of customers to connect to the same tower.

Part 3: The Economics

One of the major hurdles to the NBN being a profitable enterprise is low Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). The cause for this is multi-faceted, and I make no pretences that I am an economist so this section will be short, however there seem to be two major causes for NBNCo’s money troubles:

  • High bandwidth costs make high-speed plans unfeasible
  • High speeds unattainable over most technologies

The cost of purchasing bandwidth on the NBN is very high compared to other wholesale networks. NBNCo’s pricing structure involves two access charges, billable to RSPs: the Access Virtual Circuit (AVC) and Connectivity Virtual Circuit (CVC).

The AVC is a per-connection charge, essentially the equivalent of the traditional line rental. AVC is charged based on the link speed between the end user and the RSP’s network and can be considered the “base cost” of providing an NBN service. For example, a 50Mbps downstream/20Mbps upstream (50/20) AVC provided over FTTP or HFC costs an RSP $34 per month. This is not the only cost to the RSP, however. Per the Wholesale Broadband Agreement (WBA), the AVC charge only covers the speed of the connection between the end user and the handoff to the RSP’s network. Using the plumbing analogy, the AVC charge determines only the size of the pipe between the end user and the POI. The RSP must also pay for the data sent across that connection.

CVC is a very controversial and divisive topic. CVC is a charge billed to RSPs based on how much data they transfer over the NBN, and currently costs $17.50 per Mbps per POI. A few years ago, most RSPs were engaged in a pricing race to the bottom in order to try and capture new customers during their transition to the NBN. This led to many severely under provisioning CVC at the POI, causing excruciating peak hour slowdowns even on FTTP. Again using the plumbing analogy, CVC determines the size of the pipe between the POI and the RSP’s own network. In order to keep costs down, RSPs were under sizing the pipe for the amount of flow, and as such the pipe was continually clogged.

The ACCC eventually intervened, forcing RSPs to advertise the “typical evening speed” for each service, which is a decent indicator of whether or not the RSP has purchased enough CVC from NBNCo. This of course led to RSPs actually purchasing enough CVC, as none wanted to be seen selling 100/40 AVCs which could only realistically hit 25/5 during peak hour. This stopped the race to the bottom price-wise, and now most RSPs offer very similar prices for equivalent services.

Part of this under provisioning scheme remains today, however. One may have noticed that a 50/20 AVC would, naturally, require 70Mbps of CVC to use to its full potential and as such should cost . But the typical 50/20 service costs around $70 a month, not $1,259 a month. This is because RSPs use statistics to minimise the amount of CVC they must purchase at each POI. The key assumption is that not everyone is going to be saturating their connection at the same time 24/7, and so RSPs can provision enough CVC to satisfy average peak demand across a given POI, rather than trying to provision enough bandwidth to satisfy constant 100% utilisation. The average amount of CVC provisioned per AVC across the NBN is around 2.3Mbps, up from around 1.8Mbps during the worst of the pricing war. If we assume a provisioning of 2Mbps CVC for a typical 50/20 service, then the NBN cost-price of such a service is $691. NBNCo are attempting to bring this figure up to 2.5Mbps, however this problem is indicative of a wider issue with NBNCo’s pricing scheme, which is acting as a huge barrier to uptake of higher speed plans.

The cost of bandwidth is fixed. That is, it costs NBNCo the same whether you download 1GB or 1TB. Thus, CVC is a manufactured cost. CVC was conceived in order to help fund the rollout by minimising the impact on the public treasury and is essentially a bandwidth tax. It also served a political purpose; the Liberal Party would attack the NBN for being an unprofitable venture and so CVC was used to ensure that the network would be profit-making early in its life to pre-emptively quash such an angle from its detractors.

Under the original FTTP plan, the CVC charge was to be gradually lowered and then removed as NBNCo’s costs fell. The key to making this work was that FTTP’s maintenance costs are extremely low, and beyond the initial rollout, overheads would be somewhat fixed outside of upgrades and emergencies. However, in late 2013, plans changed. With the change to FTTN/HFC/FTTB/anything-that-isn’t-FTTP, NBNCo could no longer rely on the assumption of low and fixed overheads. FTTN and HFC are extremely expensive. Telstra’s old copper network alone costs NBNCo around $1bn a year simply to keep running, let alone fault fixing and upgrades.

The reality is that the change in rollout plans has precluded the elimination of the CVC charge, as was originally planned and has locked out much of the rollout footprint from being able to attain even the currently available high speed plans. Broadband prices will continue to remain artificially high simply to cover the inordinate expense of maintaining this failed, dilapidated, stillborn network while also trying to generate the 7% ROI expected of it.

The Blame

Someone has to take the fall for this. Well, not someone, but a group of someones. And over the last eight thousand words, it should be pretty obvious to all which group of someones has to cop it.

Wrath

The government has, with reckless abandon, neglected the needs of Australia for the last ten years. What should have had bipartisan support from day one as a necessary Government intervention (depending on your economic sensibilities, a regrettable one) in a failed private market was instead attacked relentlessly by an opposition fuelled by pure vitriol and hatred, and then dismantled piece by piece by a vindictive Government intent on doing nothing more than erasing the legacy of its predecessor. For ten years, the Liberal Party has been vehemently opposed to the NBN not because of any technical or economic reason. It has been opposed to the NBN because it was Red Team policy, and under the leadership of Tony Abbott, had become obsessed not with holding the Government to account, but with attempting to undermine and destroy it by any means necessary. If the Australian public become collateral to that, then so be it.

Greed

The destruction of the NBN has been, from day one, primarily self-serving. It has long been said that success in Australian politics is predicated on “kissing the hand” of one Rupert Murdoch, Australia’s own exported oligarch. Not only did Tony Abbott kiss the hand, he led Murdoch to the bathroom and gave him a happy ending, in return for a happy ending of his own. It’s no secret that Murdoch felt threatened by the NBN due to the rise of streaming services and access to media outlets beyond his control. In exchange for a free ride to the Lodge, the Liberal Party agreed to gimp and destroy the NBN by any means necessary. So begins this Government’s long and proven record of wanton corruption.

The corporate reshuffle at NBNCo in the months following the 2013 election was of course nothing more than a wealth transfer exercise from the Treasury to Liberal Party supporters. Gone was the original board, stacked with international telecommunications experts such as Dr Quigley, and here to stay was a board stacked with Telstra executives of the Sol Trujillo era – the Telstra era immediately following privatisation. It was during this time that numerous contracts with third party rollout partners were cancelled, and contracts with Telstra renegotiated and expanded to include asset transfers, larger cash payments, spectrum licensing agreements, and maintenance contracts in perpetuity. Dr Ziggy Switkowski, chairman of the NBNCo board, was once CEO of Telstra and a board member of Foxtel. Once a vocal critic of Telstra’s copper network, now he champions FTTN and HFC as cheaper alternatives to FTTP.

The one exception to this rule is Simon Hackett, founder of Internode. Once extremely opposed to the Liberal Party’s plan for the NBN, he was appointed to NBNCo’s board by the Government in November 2013. While this obviously wasn’t a decision made to reward Hackett, it was done instead to silence a very high profile critic of its plan, one who was very influential in the telco industry. Hackett took the position thinking he could perhaps influence NBNCo from within, however resigned when it became apparent to him that the organisation had been thoroughly politicised, and no amount of influencing would change either the Government or NBNCo’s mind on how best to proceed with the rollout. Hackett resigned in 2016 and was replaced with Michael Malone, founder of iiNet. Mr Malone stated in 2017 that if he were managing the rollout, he would penalise critics of NBNCo by moving their connections to the “back of the queue” if they complained to the media.

These are the people the Liberal Party sees fit to be running a public utility.

Pride

It should have been apparent very, very early into the post-2013 rollout that the new plan was a total dud. In fact, it was apparent. Rather than admit a mistake and assume responsibility by quietly returning to an FTTP-based rollout, the NBNCo was more than content to help the Government save face by wasting undisclosed billions of taxpayer dollars on technological dead-ends like HFC.

We haven’t really discussed Fibre to the Curb (FTTC) yet. I deliberately left that for this section. Fibre to the Curb doesn’t technically exist. After the unmitigated disaster that was the Optus HFC trial and the eventual unmitigated disaster that was the Telstra HFC rollout, NBNCo were faced with a dilemma. Either move un-fixable Telstra and Optus Cable connections to the inferior FTTN (and face the complaints that come with that), or bite the bullet and deploy FTTP. NBNCo chose neither of these options, instead quietly enlisting networking hardware provider Netcomm to invent a new technology – FTTC. FTTC involves rolling out a GPON network to the street, much like FTTP. Unlike FTTP, however, a box known as a DPU is installed in the pit. The GPON signal is fed into this box, and it outputs four VDSL signals to service homes using their existing copper line.

Take a couple of minutes to really contemplate the significance of this. NBNCo, and by extension the Liberal Government, wasted billions and billions of taxpayer dollars in an effort to do no more than salvage what few morsels remain of the Liberal Party’s reputation. FTTC is perfectly indicative of this. For the sake of a few metres of fibre optic cable up a driveway, NBNCo has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars developing FTTC not for some technical or economic reason but simply to avoid the brief political awkwardness that would come with pushing that few metres of cable up the driveway. If the argument of FTTP being significantly more expensive were true, then this wouldn’t matter as much. However, when you take into account the public money that has gone into developing FTTC, the cost of each DPU, the training of technicians and the commissioning of backend systems, FTTC ends up costing about the same as FTTP. And that’s based on NBNCo’s post-2013 FTTP costs, which in their 2013 Strategic Review (conducted externally by Deloitte and KordaMentha) magically seemed to double for no apparent reason, with FTTP OPEX being classed as CAPEX again for no apparent reason.

To Close

Make no mistake, what the Liberal Party have done to the NBN is simply unforgivable, and is indicative of their wider open contempt for the Australian electorate, its money and its intelligence.

Rather than offer Labor bipartisan support on objectively positive legislation, they elected to obstruct and attack the NBN on every possible turn, aided by Rupert Murdoch and Telstra.

Rather than accept that FTTP is vastly superior in literally every aspect to their own policy, they chose to simply lie about the cost of FTTP, and then obfuscate or redact every single available document that made reference to the cost of FTTP prior to December 2013. This deception continues today; where FTTP costs around the world are plummeting, NBNCo’s internal documents for some reason show costs increasing. NBNCo continues to be accused of artificially inflating the costs of FTTP by industry experts and economists the world over.

Rather than admit that they fucked up with FTTN when it was apparent, they forged ahead with it until the situation was so bad that even the Murdoch press were beating up on the Government for it.

Rather than quietly go back to FTTP, they spent billions of taxpayer dollars – your taxpayer dollars – on short-term distractions like HFC and FTTC for no reason other than to avoid having to admit that Labor was right about something.

The Internet has become a public utility on the same level of necessity as electricity. Greece, a nation known mostly for the corruption and inefficacy of its government, acknowledges Internet access as a basic human right. Australia, ostensibly a free, first-world nation, has a government that has for the last 10 years actively frustrated efforts to bring forth ubiquitous and reliable Internet access; and for what? For some old cunt in New York to sell more newspapers.

Should we elect a government that actually cares about the common good more than it cares about its donors and reputation, it is my hope that at least some of the recommendations made here be acted upon as soon as humanly possible, lets Australia be relegated to economic backwater status in an age increasingly defined by the Internet. The fixes outlined here represent a realistic, achievable and cost-effective way to give Australia a fighting chance at achieving universal broadband access. Sure, it’s not 93% FTTP as was originally envisioned, however the days of that being achievable in the short term are sadly long gone. With these proposed upgrades being a realistically achievable interim goal, hopefully one day soon that dream will indeed be realised.

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

1 Note that this is very close to the retail price of many 50/20 plans. In 2018, NBNCo began offering CVC discounts on 50/20 AVCs in order to encourage uptake, bringing the effective CVC price to $10/Mbps for 50/20. However, considering such discounts beyond acknowledging their existence needlessly complicates things. From now, we will assume that all RSPs pay the full price for CVC.

The Shadow of Paul Keating

Australia, Politics

Maxim Salvador Otten-kamp

Since 1996 Australian politics have languished in the shadow of a single man, and the era he ushered in. All the leaders who followed him have been held up to the same standard as a man who never finished high school and never attended university. This is not to say he does not have detractors, but they are overshadowed by his popularity. Now, this is not to say his legacy is not well earned – the shadow he casts is not from an enormous metaphorical statue. Paul Keating had a sense of youth and vibrancy which he brought to his time in government in the highest office. He had a deep passion, and the citizen of Australia were never unsure of where he stood. In regards to his economic and social reforms, Paul Keating defined the last 30 years of Australian political positioning – so too with his stances on encroachment with China, opening the economy and pushing for complete Australian independence.

When Keating won the 1993 unwinnable election, he scared the nation against change, and this was change that arguably would have been bad for the country. However, this was not the Keating strategy: his was to say the transformation of Australia by the Liberal Party was wrong, but the change of the Labor right was correct. Our case concerns the FightBack! document of that year and how it outlined the Liberal Party’s doctrine for the next 26 years. Fightback outlined a series of extreme cuts to all levels of government and at least a sense of a return of social conservatism. All Paul Keating had to do was not rock the boat too severely and scare the Australian people against changing paths. This is the classic argument from power: the party was elected on a certain platform, so why should they work to change the status quo against their original propositions? It is the job of the opposition to push an alternate vision no matter how poorly received or conceived it may be: that is their role – and if anything, the Fight Back document was this alternative. In many ways Fight Back was a change – but a reactionary change, a call-back to a time that never existed and to a time that could never be in the modern world.

We look at the modern politics of Australia and our state of Queensland, and we wonder why the name of the game is slow and steady wins the race? Because that is what has worked for decades now. The parties would adopt different tactics if they felt most Australians wanted massive change, at least if the majority did. There is also another aspect to be considered here: the old guard of parties maintain power over time, especially the ALP. I would attempt to give some analysis of the Liberal-National coalition, but that party do not represent a profound shift in this country besides being conservative business lobbyists. So, the ALP being the vessel of change in this country has seen attempts not to follow this status quo. When Mark Latham ran in the 2004 election, he opted for a far smaller target strategy than that of Kim Beazley, the long-term opposition leader. Then, with Kevin Rudd, he worked with a small target strategy, but it felt different to the electorate, enough that the election victory soared through. There was a sense of change in the air, in the same vein as Barack Obama’s election. It is also worth noting that these two leaders can also be paralleled in that they both represented significant progress and yet did not deliver, either from timidity, or through Third Way posturing until their governments were made immobile or thrown out.

It would be wrong to not admit my personal bias, and suggest that it was not all bad under our Third Way overlords. There were significant pushes for environmental protections, action on Climate change, Education and Health reform. These centre-left governments did make headway in significant areas, but their rule was not the big change that their supporters had hoped for. It was a return to the previous government of the 90s. That style, by the late 2000s, had already become adequate in an ever-increasingly radical world. The Rudd-Gillard governments were relatively moderate entities that pushed some decent policy without a long-term agenda for the nation, then let us pick up from 1996. In some ways, they accomplished this, but they failed to adapt to a newly a-temporal Australia, in that they rejected the very force that had them elected: observing the minor push back against government policies, and steadfastly adhering to propaganda networks sent them into a tailspin. This is most obviously demonstrated by the removal of Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010 – and this is not to say Rudd was a radical of any sort. The party elders merely feared that he was, and that he could cost them an election. I would, however, hypothesise that he was also removed partially due to his erratic nature of policy announcement and grandiose rhetoric. Much like how the lesson from the government under Gough Whitlam was not to try too much too quickly, this too was too much for the Australian public. Despite Gillard being on the left side of the party it was Rudd’s faction that brought him under.

I know this article is meant to be about Paul Keating and his influence on our politics, but we seem to have strayed from any discussion of Paul John Keating. He has appeared in the public sphere several times in the last few years, particularly in his music (which I would recommend giving a good hot go) but also in 2013: when Rudd returned and toppled Gillard, and called an election, whom should he invite to chat? Not Whitlam, whom he admired most, not Hawke, beloved by the country, but Keating, a Prime minister who won an election on fear. What was 2013 election about? Fear. The fear of cuts and the chaos of the Abbott government. And as we were to discover, this fear was not without foundation – leadership challenges, an explosion of debt, massive cuts, and many other gaffes. This year, Bill Shorten again called Keating back into action to appear at his campaign launch, where he made a series of comments that were not necessarily wrong, suggesting primarily that the security agencies’ responses to Chinese influence were somewhat overblown. If Keating is treated as the ultimate authority and all discussion is directed back to him, our national conversation is being held back. It seems that every time he opens his mouth the entire national conversation must return and respond to this one man.

Paul Keating was the neo-liberal treasurer of the 80s, and the prime minister of the 90s. But his brand of neo-liberalism must be defined clearly: it was not like his contemporaries in the UK, USA, Russia or China. This was the slow, pragmatic, progressive pushing of a non-academic candidate who touted what became a successful model of social progress mixed with economic liberalism. Tony Blair saw the Australian experiment and hoped to replicate it accordingly. Recently, however, Keating decided to reveal his thoughts on the current situation facing our nation, which were typical Keating: Australia, as the nation we are, should not rock the boat too much. The Americans’ belligerent reaction to the rise of China is one we can placate through economic cooperation, avoiding military confrontation. This follows the recent comments he made about China during the federal election, and essentially the same story told in the 90s.

Keating, even taking his positive qualities into account, is of his time, and has to be left in the past. He once said that Australia is a ‘weak outfit’ in terms of becoming a republic: “I mean, we are not going to take our republic, we are going to wait till the old lady dies or leaves,” he said. “Of course the next day King Charles and Queen Camilla will be there. And of course, they’ll say, `Let’s give the new bloke a go.” His own situation is the same: we don’t want to take his crown while he’s still kicking. We will just wait until he dies and then laud his (likely mediocre) replacement.

This is not to point the finger at Paul Keating for all the woes put upon Australia. One man can only have so much influence. He had a vision for this country becoming a republic, and something greater than we were. However, that vision must change with the times. The mentality of Keating and his peers, which has influenced a generation of Labor and Australian politics, needs to go away for us to move forward. Paul Keating is 75 years old, and he left office over 20 years ago! Yet his shadow looms large over this great nation. We do not have to diminish his legacy to say it is time for new thinking and to change our ways before it is too late.

Late Modernity and Teleology

Philosophy, Politics

Erentsen Erentsenov

“If we’ve learned anything from psychoanalysis is that we humans are very creative in sabotaging our own attempts at happiness… The worst thing is for us to get what we officially desire.”

– Slavoj Zizek, 2019

In terms of the right-left dichotomy, neoliberalism is a right-wing economical system with left-wing social tendencies. Teleology is a purpose, end, and a higher order or a meaning to life, going by the Aristotelian definition. This meaning is assumed to be desirable, if not achievable, or at least worth looking for.

Some are worried about the resurgence of ‘the left’, that it may pose a threat to civilizational order, or bring chaos to our society.

I will try to counter this notion by presenting three points: humanism, capitalism and liberal left movement and its relationship with teleology. This rather informal essay will show that the modern liberal left is a puppet of capital – it lacks its own ideas and coherency. Moreover, this geist stems from utilitarian ethics: materialism and positivism are infantile ideas because the basis for humanism and liberalism is absent. This further shows that the real threat to “freedom” is a hegemony of capital and its tendency towards authority.

Ontological clarification and methodology of identity

With my basic understanding of Deleuze and Hegel I can conclude that modern day capitalism has resulted in deterritorialization and a creation of new meanings. According to Deleuze, the definition of a category is influenced not only by its static meaning, but by movement in and of itself. For example, the role of the church, its tradition, and its symbolism have changed throughout the course of the 20th century, partially due to the movements around said institution: thus, the very definition of the category (in this case, the church) dependent on its motion – basically, “becoming” is an essential part of “being.”

The idea that identity is a stable concept that precedes the existence of the phenomena is a counter to Deleuze’s de-territorialisation. Of course, his own counter, in saying that the identity is originally created through the difference in objects (this difference is the identity), is much cleverer than that. However, the identities change, move and mould themselves depending on geist, historical context, current social conditions, and so on.

Moreover, as a condition or geist changes, the definition of the objects change as well. In the famous Dewey v Lippmann debate, Lippmann stated that the founding fathers assumed the role and expertise of their public in creating an active liberal democracy. However, the expertise of the common man was assumed by the standards of their local community. If they had a competent understanding of their local area, they were considered typical of the common man. Currently, the modern ‘common man’ is required to have a much wider understanding of affairs that extend well beyond the confines of his own nation. The understanding of ‘common man’ has changed, and therefore, the label of “liberal democracy” has changed as well, even if its fundamental characteristics remain. More importantly, Dewey had an idea that a liberal democracy’s reaction to world affairs should be an emotional one, which was the original development of the liberal democratic character. Therefore, a single identity exists in motion, it is inseparable from its motion and history, and more importantly, the condition of the object in context influences its identity.

This classification of identity is important as it reflects on the current nature of global capitalism and its identity and effect on the global cultural sphere. This was how Deleuze originally argued that capitalism took over from the preceding pre-modern western condition, and it de-territorialised meanings of masculinity, power, state, Christianity and many other social systems and customary attitudes in the western world. However, as capitalism became a more global phenomenon, it began re-territorialising these concepts: witness the growing authoritarianism of private companies and the imposition of capitalism on culture as merely two of many features of this growing cultural hegemon. Consider also the imposition of the idea of productivity as an end goal, and the widespread conception that normal human behaviour is behaviour that makes one a suitable employee – i.e. behaviours and attitudes that restrict freedom in favour of capital. This loss of freedom is natural as global capitalism matures and assumes cultural hegemony.

What kind of meaning could neoliberal capitalism create? In terms of teleology of the human life, there is nothing. Capitalism is in itself a materialist category (much the same as Marxism or any other materialist ideology). It rejects things outside of the empirical, the physical. Therefore, the meaning of this materialist category cannot in itself be something “higher than human.” The vain accumulation of resources or increasing material life conditions may suffice to an extent, but it is difficult to argue that this is the ‘meaning of life’, and more importantly, it entails lazy thinking.

To counter my assertion, one might claim that capitalism is only an economic tool, a system of resource allocation. However, the dichotomy of material vs ideal creates and imposes its reality on the mind. Assuming it functions as a Nietzschean ‘master morality’, people lack the agency to withstand and overcome subjective materialist capitalist impositions on culture.

Moreover, the current zeitgeist is purely modern. The most pervasive and apparent ideology of the modern day is capitalism. Specifically neoliberal capitalism. The idea of a good human matches the idea of a good worker.

Furthermore, the ideas of equality and inclusivity are capitalist as well, and neoliberalism is obviously the product of free-trade-capitalist-globalists.

Humanism and Teleology

Taking the works of postmodernists such as Zizek and Dugin into consideration, we can assume that idealism is essential to human existence. One of its manifestations exists through storytelling, framing events for oneself and others, thus creating subjective reality. Subjective reality is much more reliable (an idea stemming from Nietzsche). Therefore, one cannot discard idealism and the power of narrative from the human experience.

Clearly, neoliberalism as a whole has not even made an attempt to create any kind of meaning. By its own definition it can’t – it lacks any notion of idealism, of the notion that telling stories has any benefit.

Some thinkers say that modernity is an ateleological condition, where people’s only purpose is to destroy any higher purpose. But this notion of ateleology needs further examination. Modernism’s humanist ideas and reaches (literature, scientific advancement) are examples of the human-oriented end-goal of understanding being and stoking individualism.

One may counter that secular democracy in itself creates meaning in achieving a state of perfect secular democracy. One can also propose that meaning and teleology for humans is synonymous with progress. However, a real progressive idea only exists when coherently explained. The most coherent and furthest-reaching ideas of progress were conceptualised in the modernist era which tackled teleology (and materialism as its compass) with cold-blooded rationality, rejecting it and embracing the excellence of humanity instead (classical liberalism of Locke and Marxism).

The whole idea of a secular democracy is that people have the capacity to develop their own values, and they are encouraged to search for personal meaning.

However, techno-capital is infringing on this notion by creating and encouraging authoritative practices and by assuming hegemony over social discourse. Techno-capital is a force that stops de-territorialising identities and starts to create its own, and the resulting authority and hegemony are a part of that process (from schizophrenia back to authority). But moreover, Marcuse has shown that modernity always possessed authoritarian characteristics, and not only was the population during the height of the movement unable to create their own personal values, but it summarily asserted dominance and propagated its values in people’s minds. Late modernity is eating its own tail and it is openly aggressive towards the perceived freedoms of the west.

I find it very easy to disprove the humanist’s idea of a human being. At modernism’s birth, it retained the idea of a “human” from the pre-existing humanist tradition. The human is an ever-developing, rational being, constantly striving to find the truth, and the height of creation.

In a period where psychoanalysis and psychology were undeveloped, this conception of humanity may have sounded reasonable. But even then, this assertion was a positivist one. The underlying assumption was that this is what a ‘human’ should and can be, if possible. And this ideal ‘human’ should be liberated from the shackles of material hardship.

However, psychologists then discovered the myriad of ways we lack self-control, and Zizek and Deleuze found that humans are complicated and intricate machines of desire, and that we require mythology and storytelling to function.  Levi-Strauss believed that we could only assess things through binary oppositions, and Roland Barthes posited that mythology in media and everyday life were more prevalent in the 20th century than they had ever been before. It is also important to remember Kierkegaard’s assessment of media as a new church – occupying the same mythological spot in a person’s mind. To summarise, postmodern assessments of human nature under our current circumstances concluded largely that we are still the same mystical, tribal, mythically-inspired, irrational, imperfect, and very interesting species. Brushing all this aside to label humans as generally rational, even if we are rid of material hardship, is an incorrect assessment of human nature.

Therefore, the idea of the human posited by humanism and liberalism does not really exist. This breaks the fundaments of humanism and liberalism. More importantly, it leaves the liberalism’s ideas as forever positivist, forever aspirational. This is not a terrible thing – most idealist concepts are unreachable or at least not fully materialistic. Active faith is involved in fleshing out concepts such as ‘being’, love, freedom, etc. However, the fundament on which these concepts are built should be coherent and correct and that is where modernism lost its ideological basis.

There are many ways in which this fundamental ideological core affects our cultural life. For example, the idea of equality in the modernist era also assumed that the discourse between two rational people would be able to seize the truth. However, under the postmodern condition, one has to spend a lot more time studying and engaging with the object to achieve expertise in any given field. This shows that the most effective empirical or ‘better-assessed’ truth is only accessible to a qualified subject. There is no longer a level field that could unify us, no basis of equal human universality looking for a rational truth through discourse. This is a clear example of how the fundamental misunderstanding of a human condition is affecting the cultural field: miscommunication is a fundamental feature of human experience.

To summarize, the humanist and liberal’s idea of the human does not exist, liberal democracies of the present day lack an overriding coherent meaning despite the fact that people function through stories and myth and an explanation of the world on a subjective level. On the objective level the narrative fails because the ideal human in humanist tradition doesn’t exist. More importantly, this absence of higher meaning (or teleology) is most prominent in late stage capitalism.

Capitalism and its lack of teleology

The destruction of old hierarchical structures in cultural life created a window of freedom in western civilization. However, as capitalism gained more power in the world, it created its own hierarchical structures and began influencing cultural life. I will take the notion that global capitalism became stronger throughout the 20th and 21st centuries as a given: it has won.

Moreover, global capital’s hegemony squeezes and assumes authority over the spheres of cultural life in which it wants to assert itself. The most obvious examples show the ease with which traditionalism is sidelined by capitalism: Gillette ads, Starbucks support for LGBTQI, and a number of other global companies’ incorporation of socially leftist movements. The workers and consumers’ lives and their social opinions are of little importance to these companies – as long as they are consumers of their product and hardworking employees, people’s personal lives have no influence on the company. ‘If there are more consumers and workers to participate in capital accumulation, then why should society be organised along traditional family lines (father works, mother homesteads, children are educated), when one could have two members of the home actively participating in the economy?’

Consider also fourth wave feminism, with its ideas of responsibility and independence, which greatly resemble the positive attributes of masculinity. These ideas perfectly fit the idea of a good employee and are widely accepted and promoted by private institutions.

Another hot topic of the day is free speech – private institutions are asserting speech restrictions on their employees. Ironic that the value that was brought through modernity is now being shut down by another modernist creation. The existence of these contradictions is not terrible in itself, but when human nature is taken into account, these contradictions are becoming unavoidable and inevitable.

These examples are not new – they have existed since Bernays’ time, as shown in Century of Self by Adam Curtis.

Capitalism is becoming naturally and visibly more authoritative, to the point where it now restricts freedom of expression. The workplace is an authoritative environment where you are told what to do, what to wear, how to act to be successful, how to engage with your emotions, how to present yourself, etc.

The natural extension of capital’s control to everyday life will result in further losses of freedom of expression. According to Deleuze, capitalism has created the window of schizophrenia by dismantling old structures. But it will also create its own new hierarchical structures.

“The Liberal Left”

The postmodern condition births hedonist drones because we are supposed to find a fulfilling life and create meaning ourselves, and this is a difficult thing to do. Modernism, and its child capitalism, lack inherent meaning, leaving us to fill in the gap ourselves. Rather, the meaning that was created by modernist societies is one that we are unhappy with because it is unfit for our condition.

The overriding ethical system of the modern day is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism and materialism in the postmodern condition have created the ‘left’ that seeks material fulfillment. It is best exercised in capitalism, the system best at creating material goods. We should examine the ‘left’ as a generalised populace in 21st century: it has definitely been more socially accepting than most movements before its time, but that is because of its historical condition, in which ethical values such as pleasure and happiness are embraced.

Combine vulgar utilitarianism with the left’s infantility (its natural strive for change) and with positivism, and the result is the average modern leftist’s movement. These people are trying to defend an idea of humanity that does not exist while simultaneously exercising utilitarian ethics stemming from capitalism. The left continues to push for material improvement to see their idea of a human, which does not exist, flourish.

The main thrust of the left is the spread of social liberalism, headed by somewhat vague ideas about universal equality and diversity. It asks for the representation of quotas, as capital owners and in the workplace itself. Therefore, it is comfortable with capitalism.

The modern day left movement is the last gasp of a dying animal. They’re a leashed dog – all bark, no bite. Their moralising is hollow. 

This condition is widely recognized by most of their intellectuals: they lack a coherent left-wing theory describing and providing a framework for the modern condition and lack a prescriptive methodology, which is especially apparent when they are compared to their 19th century counterparts.

Their hollow reaction to the modern condition, and subsequent moralising is made manifest through hysteria: that’s why the neoliberal leftist supporters are often incoherent. Take as the Ur-example the political engagements of students on American college campuses, and as further example the reaction of Hollywood stars to the global affairs.

Conclusion

Late modernity has assumed an unprecedented level of control over social life through re-territorialisation, which has manifested itself through capitalism, the most prominent social hegemon. Private institutions, under the current system, will continue asserting inclusivity, equality and diversity in our cultural sphere.

But the nature of this leftist movement is false and incoherent, based on disproven ideas of what it means to be a human being. And the modern leftist movement lacks substance and is subverted by private institutions.

Is it the chicken or the egg that comes first – there a genuine desire for change in the left wing which has been exploited by the authoritative practices of capitalism, or is the current state of affairs the result of the left’s impressive control over capitalism?

People worried about the left bringing ‘chaos’ and a threat to civilisation ought to examine the ideas of the left a little more closely. I hope I have made it clear that the left lacks the coherency to drive large-scale movements, and is currently just subject to the power of capital.

Limitations

The methodology and causation in this essay imply that there is a movement and dismantling of pre-modernist categories that modernism destroyed. But as late modernity creeps in, it establishes its own authority and hierarchy.

This is also a normativist essay, there are no reaches and value judgements: I am not saying what is right, I am simply describing the changes in western culture. Moreover, I used a very assertive tone, as it is a very raw representation of my current thoughts.

This analysis is based on half-baked ontology, and there is no examination of aesthetics and their changes. Moreover, most of this is just my limited interpretation of Zizek, Dugin, Deleuze, Nietzsche and Hegel. There are many assumptions such as the hegemony of capitalism, liberalism’s Kantian ethics losing to capitalist utilitarianism, and there is no examination of personnel in the control of capital. Moreover, this work assumed that capital and government are much the same. My main assumption is that teleology is real and important and that the idealism suffices in targeting it.

Moreover, there few examples – both because this is an expression of subjective truth, and more obviously because this point has been made throughout postmodern philosophy before.

Britpop: The Story of British Politics and Society in the 1990s

Music, Society

Otis Platt

Much has been written of the British music phenomenon Britpop over the past 20 years. I argue that while Britpop started off as a reaction against the US grunge scene in way to promote a ‘British’ national identity based around working class grit, it became co-opted by capitalist marketing and the neoliberal agenda of New Labour. Using Benedict Anderson’s theory of “imagined communities”, along with E.P. Thompson’s concept of fluid social class, I will discuss how the “Britpop” phenomenon of mid-1990s Britain represented nostalgic British nationalism, I will look at three of the most well-known acts of the era: Oasis, Blur & Pulp during a time when their ideas were being called into question as problematic. After that I will detail how this popular alternative music subgenre was co-opted by capitalist marketing and nascent political forces (represented by Labour leader Tony Blair’s New Labour). In order to show this historical development and its socio-political contours I will begin by outlining the origins of Britpop in the early 1990s as a reaction against the influence on US Grunge.

Emphasis will be placed on how Britpop differed from Grunge and attempted to define itself in opposition to Grunge. I will chart the general history of Britpop to its decline in 1997 and the movement’s legacy to British music. The structural analysis will begin by outlining the representations of British nationalism inherent in the lyrics and music of Britpop bands such as Oasis, Blur and Pulp. This will include an analysis of the potentially problematic aspects of whether the nationalism of Britpop was simply nostalgic during a time when the reality of British identity was more complex. My final section will be on the attempted co-option of the Britpop genre by economic and political interests in the mid-to-late 1990s. This will show how the counter-cultural aspects of Britpop became just another aspect of neoliberal commodification and part of the new political establishment.

The History of Britpop

Britpop emerged as a musical phenomenon in Britain in the early 1990s. Historians point to the genre emerging after Blur embarked on a lengthy American tour in May 1992, which precipitated in them writing and recording an album about the Americanisation of Britain that November. The lead singer described British culture as being “under siege”, and that “We [Britons] should be proud of being British.” This change for Blur was the product of two factors. Firstly, Albarn listened repeatedly to English alternative records by the Specials, Madness, XTC, The Jam, and The Fall with his girlfriend Justine Frischmann, culminating with the band writing new songs on tour that told stories of English life. Secondly, much like in the USA, when the band returned home the UK music press was filled with American guitar bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. This only made Blur more determined to release Modern Life is Rubbish in a way that was stridently anti-American rock and pro-British pop. The band insisted that the resulting record was about British nostalgia over American importation. Albarn, according to Mike Smith, wanted to emphasise Britain’s rich Victorian-era musical tradition combined with the music of the 1960s and “come up with an articulate response to what had come from America.” Modern Life is Rubbish was released in May 1993 as Blur’s statement. The sixties influences of The Kinks was the ‘rubbish’ from the past that the band used to create its music. Thus, Britpop was born as a reaction to American grunge with a distinctly British twist.

In 1994 Blur released their second Britpop album, Parklife, with many of its 14 songs reflecting “Albarn’s claims to a bittersweet take on the UK’s human patchwork.” Parklife reached number one on the album charts. Nineteen Ninety-Four would also see Oasis release their first album, Definitely Maybe, a record with a profoundly Beatles influence. This group, led by Noel Gallagher, saw themselves as “proletarian sons of the soil, come to avenge music’s dependency on intellect and artifice.” This “proletarian swagger” of the Gallagher brothers would be something Damon Albarn and Blur would attempt to emulate, if unconvincingly. By the end of 1994, Noel urged British bands to stick together, in order to “go and break America.” However, 1995 saw the battle of the singles between Oasis’ “Roll With It” and Blur’s “Country House” (both released on 14 August) in the bid to get to number one on the charts. Musicians and the press often portrayed this battle as the middle-class southerners (Blur) versus the working-class northerners (Oasis). While Blur won this battle (reaching number one), Oasis won the war, due to the other songs off their second album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? achieving sustained sales in the US. The year 1995 also saw the release Pulp’s acclaimed album Different Class, the lead single of which (“Common People”) was a strident response to the “voyeurism on the part of the middle classes” of “a certain romanticism of working-class culture” in the words of singer Jarvis Cocker.

The year 1997 is considered the year Britpop declined in prominence. Many point to Blur’s self-titled album as a point of departure, where the English influences were traded in for American lo-fi influences (particularly Pavement) following a further stylistic change in 1996 spurred on by Albarn and Blur’s guitarist Graham Coxon. Ironically, the second single off Blur, “Song 2”, would become their biggest and most endearing hit. Additionally, Oasis’ third album Be Here Now has been identified as the moment the Britpop movement ended.

Britpop and British Nationalism

The Britpop movement had a strong emphasis on British nationalism. Ida Hølgo argued that “one of the reasons why British music and Britpop came into vogue was the change of focus from America and its rather depressive and self-pitying grunge, to music of a more positive character and lyrics about topics and concerns that were uniquely British and that British people could relate to.” Sociologist Andy Bennett argued: “music can work in a variety of ways to inform particular notions of nation and national identity.” Against industrial decline, high youth unemployment and an “increasing anxiety concerning the fate of national identity”, Britpop assisted with “the ‘magical recovery’ of British national identity.” In the 1990s there was much debate “about the kind of Britain that will emerge in the twenty-first century, and the problems upon putting forward any coherent notion of “Britishness”.” Britpop’s re-exploration of the themes and imagery contained in the songs of The Beatles, The Kinks and The Small Faces was postulated to be seen “as a nostalgic return of the past – harking back to a Britain that has been lost.”

Certainly, several of the songs of key Britpop acts fitted this trope. Blur were described in 1994 by journalist Cliff Jones as defining “a New Englishness”; “an attitude based not on a nostalgic Carry On Mr Kipling Britain, but a Britain you will recognise – the one you live in”. However, Bennett makes the point that the group’s video-clip to their 1994 song “Parklife” revisited “some of the themes and ideas concerning British life explored in the lyrics and music of 60s British bands.” The video explored the regional identity symbolised by Phil Daniels’ cockney accent, along with the virtues of simple working-class life (terraced streets and trips to the ice-cream man) that were so prevalent in the 1960s. However by the 1990s this was all done with a heavy dose of irony, with Bennett suggesting that the video harked back to “a ‘golden age’ of British life.” These concepts of British identity were also explored by Pulp.

Pulp’s video-clip to their song “Common People” was also replete with this new British nationalism of the 1990s. The Kitchen Sink social realism of the video evoked nostalgia to the 1950s and 1960s in a romanticist tone, reviving a class identity that was appearing to disappear by the 1990s. This was also a time when regional and national identities were more strongly felt, and the “Common People” video-clip went to great lengths to recapture this as much as the Blur video-clip did. It is argued that these representations form part of what Anderson calls an ‘imagined community’ of nationhood, as they are constructed in a way that reinforces an archetypal version of national identity that reinforces something which is imagined as “a deep, horizontal comradeship.”

At the time these representations of British identity were criticised as inauthentic. It was suggested that Britpop was glossing over the recent British social history of the racially turbulent 1970s and 1980s. It was seen as promoting a traditionalist view of British cultural identity through “flag-waving.” Jones argues that “[as] Britpop became the music that was seen as the preferred representation of British cultural identity, its ethos came to reflect and reinforce a nostalgic and chauvinist cultural turn which privileged whiteness and to a lesser extent maleness.” Retrospectives of the 1990s focusing on Britpop often ignore the success of socially, racially and sexually diverse and politically charged genres such as jungle and bhangra (electronic rather than guitar-based) that “engaged with and reflected contemporary concerns and anxieties rather than attempting to mould a self consciously nostalgic national identity that excluded large swathes of the country.”

However, this author takes the view along the lines of E.P. Thompson in that we should not judge the actions of the key players of Britpop, as their “aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience.” Additionally, people writing at the time believed that Britpop was not necessarily the Britain one recognised as the one they lived in, rather being one resource that young people chose to associate themselves with thanks to the cultural fragmentation that existed at the time. It was part of a pluralism of identity politics that meant one could take solace in “magical recovery” of traditionalism or embrace a new national identity that was more encompassing of multiculturalism. Both Britpop and South Asian Dance Music included all Britons regardless of race. Britpop was simply one version of national identity that coexisted “unproblematically alongside a range of other possible versions of national identity facilitated by an increasing musical and stylistic diversity within British youth culture.” Therefore, the criticism that Britpop was too white is unfounded.

Britpop’s Decline and Co-option by New Labour

The 1990s in Britain was a time of great consumerism. Britpop became one of “the most significant creative industries of the decade and became the shibboleth of cultural consumerism in Britain.” This became enhanced during the “Cool Britannia” period (1996-1998), where Tony Blair’s Labour Party used Britpop and its commercial consumption to great advantage by winning the 1997 General Election. In the lead up to the Election, Blair was portrayed as hip and cool, in contrast to the Conservatives. He even Noel Gallagher to Downing Street in an attempt to make the government likeable in popular (or populist) sense.

Once in government, Blair used Britpop as a means to an end with his socio-economic policies. Scholars have pointed out that Britpop “became increasingly acquiescent with, and deferential towards, the specific expressions of neoliberal triumphalism of the Blair years.” Navarro argues that New Labour successfully marketed Britpop through the politicisation of consumerism and the marketisation of popular culture that generated a cultural movement between 1996 and 1998 (“Cool Britannia”) by connecting politics with music, art and fashion. In endorsing “Cool Britannia”, Blair and his government “fostered a new conception of a young, dynamic and multicultural Britain by bringing pop culture to the foreground and activating a market-driven economy.” Once Blair won office, Noel Gallagher was appointed to his Creative Industries Task Force. This shows the close link between politics and the music industry in this period, emphasising Blair’s “favouring of a dynamic economy stimulated by culture industry.” Thus Britpop began to serve the neoliberal economics of Blair’s New Labour.

Conclusion

Britpop represented the cultural zeitgeist of 1990s Britain. While Britpop began as a reaction against Grunge, affirming a sense of British nationalism and working-class identity in the process, however, this movement became co-opted by political interests. Its use in politics by the Labour Party ensured Tony Blair’s ascension to Number 10 and emboldened a neoliberal consensus across both sides of British politics.

While it came to reflect the neoliberalisation of British politics, I argue that Britpop did not represent an exclusionary and nostalgic British national identity – it did quite the opposite. It was one cog in a pluralistic conception of national identity, one section of the imagined community of 1990s Britain. Britpop’s co-option by commerce coincided with its use in New Labour’s election strategy, along with the movement’s musical decline. By the end of “Cool Britannia” the party was over.

The Fetish: A History, A Future, and Why You Can’t Survive Without One

History, Philosophy

Peter Calos

On the first of October, in 2013, a man revealed anonymously to the internet that he had a deeply-held and obsessive fetish for the state of Ohio.

His story was as follows:

He lived in Ohio, and was intensely interested in hunting, in the geography and history of the state; enough to read an obscure book by a longhunter (a hunter who typically embarks on elongated excursions, some lasting for as long as six months). This book concerned the fault lines around the Ohio Valley River, and the author was a local, who he quickly managed to contact and befriend. This author happened to lead a hobbyist group that would often embark on hunting trips near the valley. Our protagonist was encouraged to come on one of the trips in question, where he was led into an obscure forest near the Ohio River. Once there, the members of the hiking party encouraged him to take several unidentifiable pills, and he experienced audio-visual hallucinations while the leader of the troop spoke about the history of the land and performed sexual acts in front of him.

Emerging from the experience, the man found he had acquired a…shall we say, a ‘certain taste’ for the fault-lines and specific geological features of Ohio.

This story, posted on 4chan slightly under six years ago, is almost certainly not true.

Yet it raises the question of how our interactions with and ideas of the fetish have changed over time. What is the origin of this idea, of attraction to a physical object? The etymology? Its conception over time? How should we consider the ‘fetish’ in modern society?

Tracing terms

The term ‘fetish’ first rears its head in 16th and 17th century travelogues, written by European traders journeying as far as their supplies and superstitions allowed into West Africa. Common parlance has it that the term ‘fetish’ refers to a small wooden idol, worshiped as a god by African tribesmen; Portuguese traders from the 15th century originally distinguished between a feitico (an object worn on the body and used in rituals) versus an idolo (a medium of worship). Collation of the terms was a European generalisation.

As the concept became more widespread, the colonialists’ impression of the fetish developed into an object that obstructed the natural path of commerce, it being a valueless piece typically composed of wood, stone, or bone, which captivated its owner despite its complete lack of monetary value.

Introductions of the fetish to Western intellectuals were fraught with travellers’ preconceptions of fetishes as primitive African misunderstandings of the universe. Their belief that devotion to a physical object could change the natural state of the world, bring prosperity to the unfortunate, or curse a particularly offensive person was a ridiculous idea to a culture that had already long accepted monotheism and the idea of an incorporeal god.

And this was also a culture that had only relatively recently recovered from the cultural shock of Protestantism, which had raised the following questions:

  1. What to do with physical representations of divinity
  2. How to accept that the Catholic power structure was both necessary to uphold social values, and also irredeemably corrupted by centuries of selling relics and indulgences.

Discrimination from a Christian world followed fetishists (If I may be allowed to use the term in an anachronistic context) in West Africa and in the Haitian colonies, on account of the association with witchcraft, sorcerous acts, and the deception of others through perceived tribal fakery. These tensions were compounded by the efforts of the West Africans to resist their oppressors with highly effective poisons. The use of fetishes had become yet another aspect of the ‘barbarian’ image the West had of her colonies.

In 1757, a French philosopher (Charles de Brosse) coined the term ‘Fetichisme’ to describe “the religious delusion that blocks recognition of rational self-interest and social order.” This description signposts two aspects of the European mindset: it is both an evolution of the Portuguese traders’ conception of the fetish as a useless trinket clogging up the market with inflated, non-extant value, and it is also an evolution of the idea that the fetish is an obsession, something that cannot be disregarded on a whim or bought or sold in the first place.

Fetishism abstracted: 19th century Europe

The backdrop of the late 19th century: European imperialism, contrasting the civility of a Europe which was being torn apart by politics and economic depression (the Austro-Hungarian Empire) with the brutal reality of colonial oppression. What Belgium had done in the Congo, and Germany in Southwest Africa, was widespread knowledge, to say nothing of the position of African-Americans in the United States.

Fetishism as a concept had become abstracted from its roots in totem worship, and had veered off wildly into two directions:

Commodity: Karl makes his Mark(s)

Commodity fetishism finds its roots in Karl Marx’s writings. In creating his labour theory of value, Marx conspicuously neglects a quite obvious source thereof: black slaves. In Marx, the slave is not a commodity, or a productive entity, or even a person: he is a ‘pedestal’, an object lacking agency, whose work is absorbed into Marx’s equations as part of the socially autonomous white labour force. In Marx’s work, the African slave is a demonstrative example for the plight of the European wage-worker, not an object in himself.

Yet the great irony of Marx’s attitude towards the fetishists is that his labour theory of value was itself a framework to be applied to the world in the absence of real evidence, something to be ideally taken in faith and acted upon by a unified proletariat. In other words, his work was written for the sake of creating a framework to judge the world by and act accordingly, which is the same principle as the African priests with their fetishes. Marx, being Jewish and downwardly mobile in class terms, was in a decidedly poor position within his own framework, and so must have considered the subjection of African culture to Europe to be in his personal interest (adding the Africans to the ‘ladder’ of European class would have brought him, relatively, one rung higher).

Commodity fetishism: when producers and consumers perceive one another in value terms, as mere creators or purchasers of value, rather than people. Economic relations abstract the reality of a given situation, hide the cruelty of the capitalist towards the worker through market-oriented language. In other words, in Marx, the ‘fetish’ is an obscurant; an obsessive, religious framework that conceals the truth of the world.

Sexual Fetishism:

The first person to coin the term sexual fetishism was the French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911), who was also the progenitor of the first IQ test. Binet established the belief, popular among contemporary psychoanalysts, that a fetish was established as a result of an associative process, a lasting after-effect of a sexually-charged first impression. Following in his wake was the Austrian Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), whose exhaustive book of sexual pathology, the Psychopathia Sexualis, challenged many pre-existing ideas on the formation and classification of perversions. The book was considered an essential resource for 19th century psychologists.

Krafft-Ebing retained the idea of perversions as functional sexual deviations which arose during puberty and declined after 40. He also wrote about individual fetishes in a distinctly gendered manner, referring to sadism and lustful murder as excessively manly, while masochism was excessively effeminate. Masturbation, in Krafft-Ebing’s view, was a key component in causing a fetish to appear.

He differed from his progenitors, however, in asserting that fetishes were mainly brought into being by hereditary tendencies, ‘taintedness’ in the family line which led to imbalances between inhibition and sexual instinct. This instinct was aggravated by stimulation, but not caused by it. Like Binet, Krafft-Ebing believed that a specific fetish was caused by the association of an object with inborn sexuality.

His most important deviation from the contemporary consensus, however, was the new conception of a fetish as not the result of degeneracy, a weak anatomy, or weak will, but as an intrinsic part of a person’s psychological composition, inseparable from that person. This more liberal perspective allowed him to then separate actions from psychological states – ‘perversions’ from ‘perversities’. “In order to differentiate between disease (perversion) and vice (perversity) one must investigate the whole personality of the individual and the original motive leading to the perverse act. Therein will be found the key to the diagnosis.” Perversion was now separated in the popular consciousness from immorality and crime, and thoroughly individualised.

One cannot avoid Freud.

In his first three essays on the subject, Freud simply summarised and regurgitated the views of his predecessors. Then came disparity: according to Freud, the sexual norm (attraction to a mature member of the opposite sex) was a perversion in itself, in the sense that the disposition towards perversion was common enough to overlap with sexual norms, and thus formed a part of sexual normalcy. In simpler terms, perversions existed, and were defined in much the same terms as Krafft-Ebing and his adherents, but they were universal. Childhood sexual proclivity was perversity to Freud because it always had the potential to veer off into any fetish as a consequence of a formative sexual experience.

In 1927, after having delved deeper into his psychological studies, Freud returned to the concept of fetishism, and redefined it as a result of traumatic childhood experience. Such a radical idea was a point of contention between Freud and other psychologists and contemporary sexologists, but this and other differences largely rose from a difference in objectives: Freud was sceptical about the possibility of ‘curing’ the perverted, while the main body of European psychoanalysts considered themselves medical workers. This was what distinguished psychoanalysts of the 20th century from sexologists: a focus on treatment versus research.

Fetish as Universal Phenomenon

‘Sexology’ became an accepted and well-defined intellectual discipline around the turn of the 20th century. This discipline was politicised in the sense that it dealt with power relations and the representation of deviants – the founder of the first sexological journal, Magnus Hirschfeld, defined sexology as a ‘progressive science’. His findings supported this definition: sexual deviation was not pathological or dangerous to society on a wider scale. A second founder of the discipline, the American Henry Havelock Ellis, claimed that sexology should serve a primary role in the politics of sex reform, and tried to garner sympathy in particular for sexual inversion.

Historical and anthropological contexts were added to the study of sexology, to divorce it from the exclusive domain of psychoanalysis and to potentially gain a deeper understanding of sexual proclivities. The question for Iwan Bloch, a major figure in the field and the creator of the term ‘sexology’, was not the origin and treatment of fetishes, but the reason they had been repressed throughout most of human history, and why they continued to be repressed. Activism from these circles mainly focused on the legal reformation of anti-homosexual laws, even from those sexologists who believed homosexuality to be a mental disorder.

Henry Ellis argued that the phenomena central to perverted desire was closely related to socially accepted sexual norms, implying that fetishists were in fact closer to the sphere of ‘normality’ than people had previously believed. According to him, sexual desire existed on a bell curve, with the majority of society close to the mean and a relative handful of individuals located at the extreme ends. Yet all previous standards upheld from Krafft-Ebing’s time were not lost: Ellis considered exhibitionism a perversion of the courtship instinct, and considered excessive self-stimulation to have harmful side-effects.

Ellis found a receptive audience in the 20th century Americans; in part because his writing was less obsessed with theory than the typical German tract, in part because it was filled with examples of deviation. These details, released publicly in popular science books, were seen as a form of social amelioration for those who had previously been pathologised. Many American sexology books became bestsellers.

Some statistical arguments and biological arguments were used to reduce the stigma of the fetish: because much of the population had a fetish of some kind or another, according to sexological research, practices that were ostensibly deviations were in fact secretive norms. Many of the fetishes were also practiced by animals, meaning there existed a biological, or a natural basis for a fetish. The idea was at the time radical, and by no means an accepted perspective – but an extant one.

Well, what do you think it means?

Try the following experiment: run the gamut of 20th century anthropological attitudes on the fetish, as I have just outlined them, through the gauntlet of 1960s and 70s progressivism. The result is our contemporary conception of the fetish as something slightly scandalous, but mostly harmless, and usually privately admissible.

(One will forgive the lack of relative detail in this section; my assumption is that the layman is familiar with the liberalising tendency of the second half of the 20th century on various fields of the social sciences, and the reader is also aware of the liberating effect its socio-cultural movements had on the public consideration and expression of sexual deviance. There is little I could add to that understanding within the scope of this work. To return to our topic, the modern-day fetish…)

According to the ever-reliable Oxford dictionary, a fetish is now “a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc…an excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing.” The original meaning of the word as an object of African worship is now apologetically retained as an outdated secondary meaning.

Since it has become to a large degree secularised, in the sense that it no longer refers strictly to either the sexual meaning or the original religious meaning, the term is somewhat less charged in modern Western society.

With that in mind, and given that we appear to have run out of history to analyse, please allow me to delve into the realm of speculative philosophy, to create a prospective definition for the term ‘fetish.’

Predictions

The term may be increasingly divorced from its overtly psychological meaning, and come to refer to something like the following:

“A specialisation undertaken for its own sake, a private interest (not reliant on anyone else sharing it for it to interest you) that serves as a framework through which you interpret the world. Or a ‘motivating framework’. Not something that exists in isolation, and not something that completely dominates the mind, but exists in tandem with a whole host of other specialities and interests. We might tentatively call a ‘worldview’ a ‘collection of fetishes.’”

This covers both the original divine spectrum of the word and the modern secular use.

Under this definition, the fetish can be considered a ‘god’ in the sense that it provides an underlying meaning and reason to act in the world, and as an artistic/creative endeavour.

  1. Fetish in divine terms

There is no reason to discount the original definition, since a fetish and a god are the same. There is a tie here between the idea of ‘god as fetish’ and ‘fetish as god’. Both contain the key to meaning: a solid bedrock, an unquestionable foundation through which to interpret the world. Unquestionable in the traditional sense due to superstition, certainly, but now also unquestionable from a secular viewpoint as a result of the time put into it, the hours of understanding gained from a lifetime of experience, and from the inability of even the most ardent postmodernist to discount that experience.

A fetish contains its own minuscule yet gargantuan world: within the area of a single art-form or of a profession is a universe-full of specialist terms, of ideas, a personal history relative to the history of everything outside of it, which may actually belie or contradict another fetish’s history in tone, if not in content. A fetish defines things.

An example. Ask a 21st century atheist what God is and he’ll likely reply with some variation on ‘a psychologically driven superstition’. None of the terms of religion or the practices thereof have any meaning for him. But a 12th century Frenchman believes that God is the underlying reason for everything, and the existence of his God – his fetish – is what allows him to define everything, understand abstract events. He can look at an assortment of religious tools, symbols, icons, and understand how they all fit into the overarching tapestry of Christian faith – what each piece means, what it’s used for and why. In other words, for the man with the belief, the man with the fetish, somewhat arbitrary practices have their own meaning and map onto the world in a very specific, specialist way.

To use a secular example, a chess player understands the reason each piece moves the way it does – because it’s an abstraction of a certain type of warrior on a battlefield.

The understanding of shared world history differs between a fetishist and a non-fetishist. The aforementioned 12th-century Frenchman considers the crucifixion of Jesus to be the supreme moment of salvation, the event around which the world turns, while the atheist would view it as merely another Jewish rebel being given a typical Roman punishment. To use a less dramatic example, consider ‘history’ as viewed by an art historian, versus someone whose chief focus is political history. A peaceful exchange of techniques, driven by outside factors which are not in themselves important – versus the history of those same factors.

Whoever lacks a fetish lacks meaning: all aspects of life assume an equally important, agnostic, characterless character, and the observer becomes a post-modern believer in nothing, immobilised, with only a casual interest in everything, unable to decide anything is more important than anything else. This is the fate of the fetish-less.

2. Fetish in artistic terms – what makes good art?

The fetish in regards to art is a combination, between the excessive focus outlined in my modern definition (specialisation for its own sake) and the Marxist idea of commodity fetish, or the uniquely sell-able product. A fetish is what distinguishes one piece of art—one product—from another. What people typically consider ‘good’ art is usually a piece with a strong, unique focus, where a specific theme is explored in unusual and interesting depth, as opposed to a poor work, where a theme is ignored, treated in a shallow manner, or used as window dressing for the sake of some irrelevant aspect of the work. In other words, good art is good because it caters to a specific fetish.

Conclusions

Whether my prediction for the future of the idea of ‘fetish’ is deluded or prophetic, out-of-order or the order of the day; whether the fetish will become an entirely secular, non-sexual concept again or whether the European psychologists have associated it with the carnal instinct beyond all recovery is not something I can tell you.

Take, as a final example, the excessive, fervent devotion of a frenzied, sexually frustrated acolyte for a religious icon, which promises to cure him of his shameful impurities: an icon which he is intent on purchasing. Here is the archetypal frustrated, embarrassed 15th century Christian, convinced by the Catholic church that he can indulge in his forbidden fantasies if he purchases the requisite volume of indulgences. In this man, every aspect of the term ‘fetish’ is combined into a focal point. It is at once an obsession, a commodity, a locus for his desires, and a thing that grounds his worldview and allows him to define his world relative to it. So, perhaps, the term will never lose its potency, as long as we have that example to draw upon.

Within the history of the fetish we encounter a history of cultural exchange, unwilling and purposeful, of rebellion, discrimination, of mental deficiency, of degeneracy, of religions lost to time. The fetish as object and the fetish as symbol of the mind have been collated in our modern understanding as a slavish fixation, something to obsess over and fascinate us forever, no matter the future.

The Ageism Epidemic

Australia, Philosophy, Politics, Society

Lachlan Green

Disclaimer: Names have been changed at the request of those involved for the sake of privacy and dignity.

Jodie is an incredibly talented artist. Her rural landscapes dot the walls of her villa and her bedroom. The intricate details of the country settings are made even more incredible when it is discovered that all the locations are painted from Jodie’s own memory. Her modesty means she adamantly refuses to take any compliments about the works, preferring instead to criticise the tiny imperfections that only an artist can see.

Jodie is also in her late-70s and living in a residential aged care facility. In fact, her talent for painting wasn’t uncovered until she had her first art therapy session in the facility, in which she showed off a talent she hadn’t explored at all through the years. A major part of Jodie’s life has been her involvement in her local rugby league club, where she was heavily involved in team management and business operations for many decades. She maintains an undying love for her footy team, and frequent visits to the club show that she’s still a familiar face and her significant contributions are often celebrated.

On one standard Tuesday, Jodie had to catch a taxi into Brisbane city for a regular hospital appointment. When the taxi arrived, Jodie saw that it was a larger, van style, Maxi Taxi. Due to age-related complications, Jodie has limited mobility. On this particular day, the taxi driver refused to call Jodie a smaller taxi and refused to assist Jodie into the back of the taxi. After some time, Jodie hauled herself into the back of the cab and they were off.

On arrival to the hospital, the taxi driver remarked that she was slower than most people and asked her to get out of his vehicle. Jodie sat for a moment and asked once again for assistance, this time, clearly upset with the time all of this was taking – the driver finally agreed. Briskly opening the side door, grabbing Jodie roughly on both arms, and applying enough pressure to make Jodie feel like she was being pulled out onto the road. Jodie showed me the grab marks on her bruised arm that persisted. Jodie made one comment to the driver before leaving, “When you’re my age, I hope that no-one treats you the way you have treated me.”

While a more extreme example, this is just one way that ageism (age-related discrimination) manifests in our society. Ageism is surprisingly rife in western society and although many people would claim it does not affect their daily thinking, it pervades culture in interesting and unrecognised ways. Simple, “harmless” generalisations about older generations and assumptions about older peoples’ abilities are basic ways in which discrimination manifests and paves the way for more sinister forms of ageism. For instance, the taxi driver’s intolerance of Jodie’s impaired mobility could most likely be attributed to a sub-conscious belief that, as a younger person, he was superior to her. Current ideas regarding ageing implicitly perpetuated in the West centre around people becoming less capable and more worthless as they grow older. This is demonstrated by the countless stories of people unable to find work once they get to the later stage of the “middle-aged” bracket.

Of course, the most extreme manifestation of ageism is elder abuse, one of the most globally prevalent forms of abuse. Elder abuse merits an article to itself, but it is safe to say that stories of physical, sexual, financial and psychological abuse and neglect are not hard to find. Evidently, the mindset of many perpetrators of elder abuse is based in ageist stereotypes and judgements of the older victims.

As with other forms of discrimination, ageism can be questioned philosophically. The big question is, what part of human reasoning causes ageism? Many people have provided a range of answers, all of which probably hold some degree of truth. Some would say that the common perception that older people are a ‘drain’ on society and on public resources, causes people to treat older people with disregard. Yet, this perception itself is inherently ageist. Many older people do contribute economically and the generalisation that all older people do not serve any purpose in society is central to the problem of ageism (and is nothing more than a gross stereotype). In fact, in many instances where older people are not contributing, it is because of younger people in the workforce refusing to work with them.

Another interesting, and perhaps more philosophical answer would be that older people are treated poorly because of a human fear of growing old. While I am not in any place to deny or confirm that answer, I do not see fear as a valid reason to treat someone as less than oneself.

The story of Jodie is not unique, it’s not even especially remarkable. The taxi driver was reported and is pending disciplinary action. Jodie claims that she’s okay but she has stated, “I don’t feel like I’m comfortable going out on my own anymore.” Yet, it’s the words that follow that floor me, and in the many instances of ageism that I’ve been informed of over the last 4 years of working in, or close to, the aged care industry, these words always seem to follow. “Don’t worry, it’s just how it is.”

Works Cited

https://www.humanrights.gov.au/face-facts-older-australians#fn7

http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/3222.0Main%20Features12006%20to%202101?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3222.0&issue=2006%20to%202101&num=&view=

http://www.agediscrimination.info/international/

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs381/en/