On Truth and Knowledge: “Neoliberalism is Dead”

The expression ‘knowledge itself is power’ occurs in Sir Francis Bacon’s Meditationes Sacrae (1597). Basically the more one knows, the more one will be able to control events – it’s about being aware of something, and having information. Knowledge is really about facts and ideas that we acquire through study, research, investigation, observation, or experience. Wisdom is the ability to discern and judge which aspects of that knowledge are true, right, lasting, and applicable to your life. Bacon criticizes prejudices and false opinions, especially the system of speculation established by theologians, as an obstacle to the progress of science, together with any authoritarian stance in scholarly matters. According to Bacon, human understanding is determined by feelings and passion that corrupt it, for this reason human knowledge cannot be reduced to its intellectual components. Another problem is individuals have conceived ideas as weapons that help to fulfil desires or interests, rather than the discovery of truth.

With respect to truth and knowledge, Nietzsche observes convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies, subsequently he declared “God is dead” He was concerned that God is dead in the hearts and minds of his own generation of modern man – killed by an indifference that was itself directly related to a pronounced cultural shift away from faith and towards rationalism and science. This was an academic debate at a time when the major social sector in late 19th century consisted of farmers and domestic help. His thinking challenged the dominate ideology – religion – that provides order to society and controls how man thinks was breaking down. Ideology controls the masses – ideologies conceal essential aspects of social and political reality. The concealing aspects of ideology are not accidental (i.e. not simply errors) but relate systematically to a set of social and cognitive interests of the elites. Nietzsche observes truth is simply the name given to the point of view of the people who have the power to enforce their point of view.

During the 20th century a new social class appeared. By the 1950s industrial workers had become the largest single group in every developed country, and unionized industrial workers in mass production industries had obtained upper middle-class income levels. Labour unions emerged as the most powerful and organized political force. Thirty-five years later, in 1990s, industrial workers and unions were in retreat. Whereas industrial workers who make and move things accounted for 40% of the American work force in the 1950s, by 1990 they accounted for less than 20% – no more than they accounted for prior to World War I. By 2010, in every developed country, industrial workers account for less than 12% of the workforce. In parallel with the decline of blue-collar workers, the neoliberal ideology was promoted amongst the rich, the bankers, the mainstream economists and the media.1

Bruce Schneier notes the first listing in a Google search result gets a third of the clicks, and if you are not on the first page, you may as well not exist. The result is that the internet you see is increasingly tailored to what your profile indicates your interests are. This leads to a phenomena that political activist Eli Pariser has called the ‘filter bubble’ – basically an internet optimized to your preferences where you never have to encounter an opinion you don’t agree with. He warned us that Facebook and Google’s personalization tools would drive us to become ever more partisan by showing us only the news and information with which we already agreed. The algorithms feed each of us information that supports views we already have, and creates the conditions for us to be more susceptible to falsehoods.2 The Internet is not a tool for transparency, it actually combines your biases with data manipulation, and you get the opposite result of the new enlightenment that was supposed to come with the digital age.

By the mid-2000’s with its explosion in popularity and reliance on search engines, journalists and bloggers were more interested in attracting the attention of search engines than they were of direct viewers. Sites essentially lived and died by their page ranking. However, as the web switched from search engine based to social media driven, there was a gigantic shift. Getting readers to click on headlines and share articles is what Breitbart and many sites want. Under Bannon Brietbart developed right wing clickbait headlines such as the hidden camera expose of community group ACORN. By the time several inquiries cleared ACORN of serious wrongdoing, the 40-year-old organisation had shut its doors, and Breitbart had claimed a major scalp. Despite this, it becomes a media source that more and more people turned for their information. Breitbart News’ power was most in evidence during Donald Trump’s election campaign.

The economic elite use social media to create confusion and advance a neoliberal agenda. Not only is the manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than any other types of censorship, such as web-site blocking because it is dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it. The fabrication of grass roots support for economic policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the system essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside. President Duterte admitted paying people for a social media campaign in which volunteers and paid persons or groups used social media accounts to promote him or defend him against critics. Donald Trump understands social media has a much more powerful reach than any other media channel – the entire world is glued to their phones around the clock. However, Duterte and Trump quickly become tools of the oligarchs.

At one time it was believed that the Internet was going to be the greatest tool for expression and democracy. The ready availability of online information reduces people’s retention of facts – they have lower rates of recall of information itself and enhanced recall instead where to access it. Using Google gives people the sense that the Internet has become part of their own cognitive tool set. In recall experiments the information lifted from the web page became a product that resided inside the study participants own memories allows them to effectively take credit for knowing things that were a product of Google’s search algorithm. Ideas on the web tend to be about problem solving, while opinions on the web are mostly theatre, in which emotions drive decision-making. The advent of the information age seems to have created individuals who feel they know more than ever before – when their reliance on the internet means they may know ever less about the world around them.

The Medieval church became the most dominant institution in western Europe. It was one of the largest landowners of the time and collected rents and many fees for offices and services. The church did not pay taxes. Its top down structure facilitated control of information and the creation of wealth, ultimately ensuring the abuse of power. The trickle down economic theory was rebranded in the 1970s to an ideology – supply side economics – the doctrine that tax cuts could be had for free (incentive effects would generate new activity hence more revenue) without causing budget deficits. Its creators never believed trickle-down economics worked – it was an ideology that was created to unite the right. Social media is a tool for counting, quantifying and tracking – which facilitates creating algorithms describing the pattern of behaviour characteristics of all subjects within group X. Neoliberals, recognizing their waning control of their ideology over the working class, are in the process of replacing it with data points from social media (i.e. Cambridge Analytica).

By developing a psychological profile using Facebook likes it is possible to develop algorithms to control and manipulate targeted populations for political purposes. Psychographic profiling of the electorate allows further segmenting of personality types into specific subgroups who are susceptible to precisely targeted persuasion messages attached to an issue they care about. Rather than a problem of social justice, data considers a problem knowledge – we just have to tweak the algorithm so that it works better. Its not that society is unequal – but that our algorithm isn’t functioning as well as it should. The advantage of data is it eliminates the problems of justice, leaving us with the conviction we now live in a classless society – in a flat and merocratic world. This data created by the economic elite supports the appearance that everyone is included, that everyone has a voice and that their voices count. From this perspective the only injustices are making false claims about exclusion, marginalization, and oppression.

Neoliberals stake their claim on data in which quantifiable behaviour counts, more or less, as political participation and enfranchisement, such that economic elite become even more deeply invested in developing more ways to quantify the behaviour (or opinion) of the working class. This data supports a ‘consensus’ society that they believe is legitimate because its rules are merely formulations of what people already do already.3 The Occupy Wall Street protest following the 2008 recession claims neoliberal ideology supports a system that allows control of information and the redistribution of wealth upwards. Joseph Stiglitz says the consensus surrounding neoliberal economic thought has come to an end – that an unregulated market is the best way to increase economic growth has now been pretty much disproved.4 As more and more become aware the Western world’s reliance on neoliberalism providing order to society and meaning of how the economic system functions is a failure – neoliberalism is dead. To drive change it is necessary to apply this knowledge using classical contract theory in which all agree/consent to the rules of society as we move forward on a path to economic democracy.

1 Druker, Peter. (November 2016) The Age of Social Transformation. https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/95dec/chilearn/drucker.htm

2 Newhoff, David. (25 Feb 2015) The Illusion of More. http://illusionofmore.com/social-media-manipulate/

3 James, Robin. (30 May 2014) Social Media, Because Neoliberalism? https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2014/05/30/social-media-because-neoliberalism/

4 Martin, Will. (19 Aug 2016) Nobel Prize-winning economist Stiglitz tells us why ‘neoliberalism is dead’ http://uk.businessinsider.com/joseph-stiglitz-says-neoliberalism-is-dead-2016-8

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