Politics is often defined as the practical application of ethics. As an ethical fashion blog, A Rake’s Progress is necessarily political.
For the most part though, this doesn’t entail commenting on current affairs news stories. Yet with this post I want to talk about one of the most important political scoops of our times: the Cambridge Analytica revelations, and the man responsible for bringing this information to light, CA turncoat Christopher Wylie.
Wylie has a penchant for generic “on-trend” menswear with a slight anarcho-streetgoth edge (endless bomber jackets). And in joining Cambridge Analytica he abandoned studies in fashion marketing. Beyond this though, Wiley was previously of no particular relevance to the fashion industry.
Then, in January 2019, Wylie took a job with H&M.
Why would someone who’s CV includes helping to swing elections for murky rightwing organizations decide to move into fast fashion? Well, that’s precisely what bothers me. But let’s wind things back a little first.
The importance of the evidence that Wylie brought to public attention cannot be overstated. Most intelligent people may have begun to suspect that all this social media stuff perhaps wasn’t working out quite as well as we’d hoped, but until Wylie ditched the dirt there was little hard evidence against organizations such as Facebook.
So yes, we should all be very happy that Wylie turned “whistleblower”. Perhaps even grateful to him for having done so (and even more grateful to Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who cornered him). We should not, however, permit Wylie to spin himself as some kind of progressive hero or symbol of resistance against the data-archy.
This guy has been involved in some supremely nasty shit. While it’s conceivable that Wylie arrived at a point where he felt bad about doing this stuff, it’s important not to forget that he was doing it in the first place. And for several years running.
Ask yourself, would you even entertain the idea of corrupting the democratic political processes of an entire nation? A nation to which you have no personal connection and no political allegiances either one way or another? Simply for money and a Machiavellian sense of satisfaction? *
This is how Wylie describes CA’s activities:
“there’s so much fucked-up shit that Cambridge Analytica were doing in different parts of the world. But if you go to a developing country and do grossly unethical things, that’s not ‘newsworthy’.”Christopher Wylie speaking to The Guardian
Yet it was precisely such activities that Wylie himself was involved in during the years he worked at CA. What’s more, when Wylie left Cambridge Analytica, it wasn’t because he’d seen the error of his ways and wanted out. Quite the contrary, it was to set up a company of his own, offering almost identical services to CA (services so similar, in fact, that Cambridge Analytica hired lawyers to stop Wylie stealing their clients).
This hardly reads like a tale of contrition. Rather, Wylie’s rebranding of himself as someone “championing the threat to democracy” looks to me like opportunist posturing. Positive spin put on a very unpleasant past from someone with an evident craving for celebrity (according to the Guardian, Wylie now has a Hollywood agent and likes to be ferried around by chauffeur).
Most of us would be deeply suspicious of a politician who, when the political climate takes an unexpected turn, defects from a party at one political extreme to join another at the total opposite end of the spectrum. Aside from looking a lot like self-interested maneuvering, what does it say about the individual’s political convictions and ethical beliefs?
In touting his manipulative data analysis services to political organizations around the world, Wylie has changed his allegiances more times than his hair color. We’re talking Obama to Trump, and anti-Brexit to pro-Brexit. In short, Wylie has no political allegiances. Instead, money and personal glory seem to figure much larger in his ambitions.
A Mafia hitman who repents and turns informant is to be celebrated, yet no amount of speaking at literary festivals or participation in TV discussion panels can erase culpability for earlier acts of torture and murder.
Wiley’s sins are of a different nature of course (although considering the scale, they are arguably a lot more serious than just casting concrete boots for a few rival mobsters). But until The Observer newspaper tracked Wylie down, he was apparently perfectly cool with swinging elections by furtive and nefarious means. Let’s not forget this: Wylie didn’t come out and offer the evidence on Cambridge Analytica by his own volition, he had to be talked into it by a journalist.
Christopher Wylie is now H&M’s “head of research” (apparently the same job title he had at CA). This puts him in charge of developing “ethical AI” for the company. Yes, you’ve understood correctly: the man responsible for inventing “psychological warfare” techniques employed by terrifying rightwing puppet-master Steve Bannon is now entrusted with the task of making everyone’s favorite Swedish fast-fashion brand more ethical.
Christopher Wylie is not a hero of progressive politics. No amount of radical posturing or brightly colored hair dye is going to change this. Sure, many of Wylie’s enemies are also my enemies, but that doesn’t make him my friend. His appointment to H&M may not be a threat to democracy on the scale of his activities with Cambridge Analytica (although, seriously, who fucking knows what new dystopian nightmare the future holds), but we’d still do well to remain very wary.
COS produce stylish clothes. And Arket have made some concessions to sustainability. But while Wylie is involved, my money goes elsewhere. If you care about democracy, yours will too.
*If you answered yes, perhaps you have a bright future in fashion marketing?