Social media as technology of control: Looking for a left critique of new media

The argument is that social media represent an unparalleled potential technology of control, of the deliberate alienation of social consciousness and solidarity by isolating individuals in a sphere of fabricated, fake community that is in fact not community at all, but a narcissistic contest of all against all to achieve an arbitrary personal approval rating, and to do so in preference to and exclusion of seeking social and economic justice or community with others whose material circumstances and interests are the only real basis for the social, and for collective action of any kind.

Social media: we are alone together.
Social media: we are alone together.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to make this kind of argument for someone else, particularly since it is an argument coming from a perspective I used to battle against: educated, insightful post-Marxist left critique.  The kind of critique that used to be everywhere in the 1970s and even in the 1980s, but now almost completely absent in public debate in the US, in Australia, and from what I can see, even in the UK.  This sudden and apparently complete demise of an educated, erudite, literate and vocal left opposition to the grasping voices of plutocracy and robber baron capitalism seems to have left the way clear for a complete dominance of capitalist excesses in Western societies.

The argument is that social media represent an unparalleled potential technology of control, of the deliberate alienation of social consciousness and solidarity by isolating individuals in a sphere of fabricated, fake community that is in fact not community at all, but a narcissistic contest of all against all to achieve an arbitrary personal approval rating, and to do so in preference to and exclusion of seeking social and economic justice or community with others whose material circumstances and interests are the only real basis for the social, and for collective action of any kind.

Before explaining what this all means, let’s turn to Rob Horning’s blog on the New Inquiry site.  His thesis is pretty simple.  Class conflicts, based on economic inequality, exploitation of the surplus value of labour, and monopolisation of the means for capital formation, have been displaced in social media by an artificial and ultimately futile pursuit of individual popularity, as measured by an arbitrary standing in a contrived scale of popularity, influence, and ‘hipster’ cachet.  That scale is revealed to the unknowing public by the ridiculously phoney concept of the ‘social graph’, a kind of Kloutish attempt to ‘rank’ people by algorithm that is not much more sophisticated than Zuckerbergish frat boys voting on what girl on campus they’d like to fuck.

But Horning doesn’t take his theme to a logical conclusion, and baulks at saying what he does as himself, instead deferring to others, whose ideas he leaves mysteriously and infuriatingly unexplained.  Does Horning suspect that his audience is simply not able to assimilate the concepts he skirts?  Perhaps that is the truth of it regardless of Horning’s intentions; the discussion at the original limited G+ post linking the article was nonplussed, wary, clueless, quickly derailed into a ridiculous attempt to shrink the commentary into a masticated price of bubblegum, ascribing to it absolute properties and utility that don’t exist and are irrelevant to anyone but the Zuckerbergish fratboys.

Immaterial labour

The first reference Horning made that deserves closer attention is that of immaterial labour, defined by Maurizio Lazzarato as the –

activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work”—in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion. Once the privileged domain of the bourgeoisie and its children, these activities have since the end of the 1970s become the domain of what we have come to define as “mass intellectuality.” The profound changes in these strategic sectors have radically modified not only the composition, management, and regulation of the workforce—the organization of production—but also, and more deeply, the role and function of intellectuals and their activities within society.

Lazzarato poses a conundrum as his conclusion about the implications of immaterial labour:

Because the capitalist entrepreneur does not produce the forms and contents of immaterial labor, he or she does not even produce innovation. For economics there remains only the possibility of managing and regulating the activity of immaterial labor and creating some devices for the control and creation of the public/consumer by means of the control of communication and information technologies and their organizational processes.

If Lazzarato was too clinical, let me recast immaterial labour as precisely what occurs in social networking – the worship of style and fashion which creates public taste, and the time, energy and intellect devoted to posting about these matters, which is effort not expended on something else, such as political engagement or directly economic activity.

Being watched, everywhere, by nerds, who turn out to be the real 'Big Brothers'.
Being watched, everywhere, by nerds, who turn out to be the real ‘Big Brothers’.

The devices of control Lazarrato refers to can be both abstract models of thought that channel immaterial labour and consumer behaviour, and the concretely material gadgets people use to tie themselves to that mind-set and to the production of immaterial subjectivities – iGadgets, Android gadgets, all deliberately limited to allow only for immaterial labour and consumption, not for actually productive economic activities or real social or community engagements.

In this conception the rôle of content producers like this author is in defining new aesthetic considerations of consumption, or engaging with consumption itself as an artistic or creative activity.  Presuming, of course, that this isn’t all an elaborate illusion or diversion from serving up exactly the same relations to consumption as have always pertained, albeit with a new middle-man, or mediator — the social network infrastructure provider itself.

Horning concludes from this that social networks explicitly void a normative community of class interests by alienating social networkers from that possibility or potential.

In the network, you are on your own; its ideology suggests we are all equally points on the great social graph, no different from anyone else save for the labor we put in to establishing connections. This obviates the issues of pre-existing social capital and class habitus that facilitate the formation of better connections and the ability to reap their value instead of being exploited by them.

Social class

It seems that the concept of social class is difficult for Americans because it is so often denied that American society has social barriers, or even a working class per se rather than an as-yet-unactuated, universal ‘rich and famous’ people.  That seems a bizarre piece of self-delusion by the American proletariat, and an egregiously dishonest politics by everyone else in the US social mix.

Horning is not much help here, barely leaving the concept of immaterial labour behind in differentiating it from the construction of social solidarity.

But to forge a social class, a different sort of work is required, called forth by a different conception of society, based on antagonisms between blocs (and ongoing fights that require long-term strategies), not antagonisms between individuals (whose spontaneous skirmishes require more or less ad hoc tactics). Think E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which treats class not as a statistical artifact but as something that’s as much forged deliberately by members than ascribed by outside forces. The social graph purports to passively record social arrangements that emerge organically and thus reflect some sort of true and undistorted account of how society works. That conception discourages the possibility of those plotted on the graph from making a social class. Social media users don’t take advantage of their connectedness to undertake the work of finding the bases by which they can see their concerns as being shared, being in some way equivalent. Instead, their connectedness drives them to preen for attention and personal brand enhancement. One must work against social media’s grain to use it to develop lasting, convincing political groupings.

In referring to Thompson’s work, but not elaborating on it, Horning seems to have glossed over a key factor in American conceptions of both social class and the rôle of public intellectuals in formalising class consciousness and making possible class-based political action.

Thompson provided a most instructive illustration of how class consciousness evolved in 19th century Britain.

The towns, and even the villages, hummed with the energy of the autodidact.  Given the elementary techniques of literacy, labourers, artisans, shopkeepers and clerks and schoolmasters, proceeded to instruct themselves, severally or in groups.  And the books or instructors were very often those sanctioned by reforming opinion.  A shoemaker, who had been taught his letters in the Old Testament, would labour through the Age of Reason; a schoolmaster, whose education had taken him a little further than worthy religious homilies, would attempt Voltaire, Gibbon, Riccardo; here and there local Radical leaders, weavers, booksellers, tailors, would amass shelves of Radical periodicals and learn how to use parliamentary Blue Books; illiterate labourers would, nevertheless, go each week to a pub where Cobbett’s editorial letter was read aloud and discussed.

Thus working men formed a picture of the organisation of society, out of their own experience and with the help of their hard-won and erratic education, which was above all a political picture.  They learned to see their own lives as part of a general history of the conflict between the loosely defined “industrious classes” on the one hand, and the unreformed House of Commons on the other.

— Thompson, Edward Palmer, (1964).  The Making of the English Working Class.  New York: Pantheon Books, pp 711-712.

The picture of a barely literate yet highly politically conscious class of socially constrained but surprisingly self-aware people emerges, who strove not only to explain to themselves their own circumstances, but also thereby to aim at improving them.  A far cry from the supremely more literate and information rich Americans of this century who care nothing for the history of their circumstances, nor for the architecture of their present troubles, who eschew reading that is not aimed at popular abstraction of daily realities, and who anticipate all the while a change in their fortunes they hope will just occur, as if it required no effort on their behalf to make it so.  This mindset was summarised brilliantly, and yet in a completely unrelated context by screenwriter Rowan Joffé, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman for the 2010 film The American, in which a priest, Father Benedetto, says to the American: ‘Of course! You are American.  You think you can escape history.  You live life for the present.’

Literary critique derails economic arguments

As if to rise to that bathetic motto, Horning derailed almost the entire raison d’etre of his critique by making it the subject of a borrowed perspective, namely that of French authors Boltanski and Chiapello in their Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme, translated into New Spirit of Capitalism, which was described by New Left Review writer Sebastian Budgen as Gallocentric and quite removed from Anglophone dynamics and concerns.

Moreover, in an abrupt and unexpected left turn, Horning’s argument shifts from political economy to artistic critique to describe the bad faith of hipster techno entrepreneurs.  It may be an interesting subject in it sown right, but it is a little too abstract to advance any case for an economic class or how it is obscured by social networking.

It would be much more directly Marxist to mention inauthenticity only in passing, and instead, to focus on the commodification of immaterial labour as nonetheless possessing a surplus value, that being the spectacle it creates to drive passive or participatory consumer interaction with itself, and thereby representing a value to advertisers and other interests in demographic segmentation and personal information.

Leaving Horning to the side for the moment, the product of immaterial labour in social networks can be conceived of as an evolution of the product of television, specifically ‘reality TV’, in which production costs of ‘spectacle’ are minimised by objectifying the idiots who volunteer to be ridiculed in front of mass audiences as ‘talent’, and the audiences themselves as the passive consumers of advertising messages.  It is less clear how social networks package their ‘audiences’, but that is to be expected from a technology of commodification that is still coming into being.

The myth of neoliberalism

Unfortunately Horning’s own critique does not return to a more hard nosed economic focus after his departure into artistic or literary critique.  He raises the red herring of neoliberalism, a concept that may itself have had much to do with the demise of authoritative, authentic left critique.

Neoliberalism is an empty phrase that its users have sought to cast as a kind of catch-all for everything antithetical to post-Marxist left idealism.  Reading the two most prominent treatments of neoliberalism, however, reveals just how useless the term really is.  In both Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism and Steger and Roy’s Neoliberalism the authors try pretty hard, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to characterise neoliberalism as a coherent set of economic policies and their political adjuncts.  This proves to be unworkable because the economic policies are just too diverse and conflicting to yield to a ready categorisation, and the political adjuncts are not necessary causes or effects, thus being quite arbitrary and again immune from ready categorisation.

The historical genesis of the term neoliberalism is the hard-nosed economic rationalism of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, which referenced the neo-classical economics of the Austrian School, probably known as the Chicago School in America because of the need for Americans to conceive of every idea as being essentially an American one.  The economics associated with this era were not a fundamental shift to some ‘neo’ plane at all, but a pendulum swing on a trajectory that had Keynesian state interventions at one end, and Hayekian restraint from intervention at the other.  In a rigorously academic analysis of these concepts, Keynes and Hayek are not implacably opposed so much as degrees of instrumentality in the same conception that post-industrial economies can be managed by the state through resort to a variety of levers and instruments (interest rates, fiscal interventions, taxation levels, etc).

The gift of the technocrats.
The gift of the technocrats.

Horning assumes some underlying properties to the neoliberalism which he does not explain, but which I will take to mean the unconstrained ascendancy of plutocracy and robber baron capitalism in a political environment stripped of a formerly trenchant and rigorous left critique.  It seems vaguely ironic that even Horning’s left analysis is somewhat subdued and almost apologetic about daring to oppose unfettered capitalism.

One more disturbing facet of the resort to neoliberalism as a category is that it cloaks specific people and institutions from agency or critical gaze.  We do not speak of central bankers or stockbroking firms as criminal scoundrels, we talk  only of neoliberalism.  We do not blame the proletariat which allowed itself to be alienated and fooled by politicians and the wealthy, we just talk about how neoliberalism repackaged the proletariat as the new middle-class.

Most importantly, we do not discuss how the proletariat allowed its labour unions to become self-concerned, elitist, and sometimes overtly criminal enterprises that no longer had any function in representing class interests.  It is a real dilemma for the left: what do you do when the proletariat itself votes and argues for its own enslavement?  What possibility is there under such circumstances for an authentic politics of the left?

What’s left is a technology of control

Emerging from Horning’s blog are potentials for left critiques of social networking and the network infrastructure itself rather than actual auditioning models of critique in themselves.

One such potential is the conception of social networks as representing the alienation and objectification of networkers as ahistorical commodities devoid of political content, class or economic affiliation, serving only to create through their immaterial labour the spectacle necessary to draw others into a common environment that facilitates the exploitation of demographic information and the encouragement of consumption.

Another conception is that the social networks facilitate the parasitic industry of explicating social networking by the production of data interpretation, ‘apps’ and gadgets to ‘make sense of it all’.  That industry nevertheless relies on the same immaterial labour and spectacle as the first potential critique.

A final conception is that in terms of post-Marxist analysis, social networking is a side-show masking the real project of deliberately designing a technology of complete control via a meta surveillance made possible by voluntary submission of sufficient personal details to permit sophisticated pattern analysis to reveal threats of dissidence, terrorism, and even common crimes.

A tangential consideration that arises is the clueless nature of the participants in both the infrastructure fabrication (entrepreneurs, programmers, designers) and the spectacle (content creators, ‘curators’ and spectators.  These people appear not to have the depth of education, or the class consciousness, or the economic prescience, to recognise themselves as objects in the further alienation of economic interests from class and political action.  It is difficult to disentangle cause and effect here, but it does appear likely that the existence of a ubiquitous internet of spectacle is roughly contemporary to declining levels of literacy in the Western world, and both are roughly contemporary to a decline in rigorous left critique.

This may come back to Horning’s disparaging contempt for hipsterism, which casts a notionally educated and literate class of youngish IT professionals as ignorant and contemptuous of precisely those sets of knowledge they don’t understand because they are complex and require concentrated abstract thought to deliver not a closed set of undisputable facts, but merely motivations for further thought, and for action that does not involve headphones in ears to drown out the world, and joysticks in hand to abstract reality.

I’ll let Horning have the last word.

We all flounder to get ahead personally but never unite in a meaningfully political way. The 99% dissolves and all that’s shared is statuses, photos, and tweets. And everything remains fucked up and bullshit.

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