Error 404: the Need for Change

Georg Hegel (1770-1831) introduced a system to study history – dialectical thinking – a progression in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement with the development of freedom and the consciousness of freedom. Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), one of the most prominent members of the Frankfurt School, initially turned to Hegel’s ideas in his writing in order to explain their philosophical strength through the dynamics of socioeconomic contradictions. Marcuse uses dialectical thinking to expose the contradictions by which an advanced industrial society is constituted. The problem of concealment occurs here because not only does society produce contraindications in the forms of domination that come with them, it also produces the social and psychological mechanisms that conceal these contradictions. An example of social contradictions is the co-existence of the growth of national wealth and poverty at the same time.

The desire for knowledge, Nietzsche argues, stems from hubristic self-focus and is amplified by the basic human instinct for belonging — within a culture, what is designated as truth is a form of social contract and a sort of “peace pact” among people. Domination is exercised by a particular group in order to sustain and enhance themselves in a privileged position. Marcuse observes that the system doesn’t require force – just introduce one-dimensional thinking – which leads to acceptance of oppression and surplus repression. The system must make the citizen think they are freer than they actually are. This means the economic elite must control the political discourse, not the workers. The ideology in place ensures the oppressed identify with the oppressor. The desires of the individual must conform to the desires of the economic elite. It is necessary to expose the contradictions by which today’s advanced industrial society is constituted.

Marcuse argued that “capitalism and mass culture shape personal desires” so there is no essential or unchanging aspect to human nature. Mass culture results in domination of “the inner world of the human subject”. A man under capitalism is “one dimensional” since he bears no trace of the conflicts which make him multi-dimensional and capable of change. This is why Marcuse believes that people under Liberal Western capitalism are no freer than people under totalitarian role, their oppression is just transparent. For Marcuse the one-dimensional man is closely related to both consumerism and mass media that together serve as an ideological apparatus which reproduces itself through its subjects. This apparatus promotes conformity and is aimed at preventing resistance. The person who thinks critically demands social change. One-dimensional thinking does not demand change nor does it recognize the degree to which the individual is a victim of forces of domination in society.1

An economic system that rewards psychopathic personality traits has changed our ethics and personalities. Freud claims there exists a dynamic balance between the individual and society that consists of aggressive instinctual impulses, but society attempts to oppress the individual into its requirements. Herbert Marcuse noted violence is a pain-causing process present whenever there is a difference between the actual and the potential for a person. It pervades the social fabric in insidious ways now made apparent when relations of repression result in outbursts, with root causes barely understood. Marcuse termed this ‘surplus-repression’ referring to the organized domination in modern society over and above the basic level of repression of instincts Freud believed necessary for civilization. Henry Giroux likens this more extreme form of repression to a widespread system of ‘culture of cruelty’, which tends to normalize violence to such a degree that even the common occurrence of gun violence fails to trigger a systemic analysis or response.

Alfred North Whitehead used the phrase great refusal for the determination not to succumb to the facticity of things as they are – to favour instead the imagination of the ideal. The student protests of the 1960s were a form of Great Refusal, a saying “NO” to multiple forms of repression and domination. This Great Refusal demands a new/liberated society. This new society requires what Marcuse calls the new sensibility which is an ascension of the life instincts over the aggressive instincts. This idea of a new sensibility is yet another move beyond Marxism insofar as it requires much more than new power relations. It requires the cultivation of new forms of subjectivity. Human subjectivity in its present form is the product of systems of domination. We rid society of its systems of domination by ridding it of the forms of subjectivity formed by those systems and replacing them with new forms of subjectivity.

Freud described the reality principle, the ability to evaluate the external world and differentiate between it and the internal world. The reality principle did not replace the pleasure principle, but represses it, such that, a momentary pleasure; uncertain of its results, is given up, but only in order to gain in a new way, an assured pleasure coming later. The reality principle strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. In neoliberalism the reality principle is replaced by the performance principle. The performance principle presupposes particular forms of rationality for domination that stratifies society, Herbert Marcuse observed, “according to the competitive economic performance of its members.” Domination is exercised by a particular group in order to sustain and enhance themselves in a privileged position. The neoliberal performance principle teaches us to conceive of social problems as personal problems – emphasizing individual responsibility while failing to address systemic state violence in all its manifestations – healthcare, education and the war on the poor.

The technological boom has been supported by the idea that there is some fundamental connection between technological development and the human quest for liberation and a better life. However, we were disabused of this idea by Freud and many others. The question now is “does technological advance lead to more repression and domination?” If technologies benefit people in some way, or favour one group over another, then they are not neutral. As Heidegger observes, “The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control”. The essence of technology is not something neutral, as the technical trends claim, but rather the issue is related to use. In a nutshell, the great danger is that the technological mode of being, which has us unconsciously perceiving everything in the world as a potential resource to exploit for our ends, tends to come at the exclusion of all else.

Technology affects the way individuals communicate, learn, and think. It helps society and determines how people interact with each other on a daily basis. Technology plays an important role in society today How has technology made the world worse? The increase in mobile use has led to more traffic accidents, a rise in eye strain and visual impairment, increased brain activity, and more. Not to mention the mobile Internet has increased the ways cybercriminals can access our personal information and secured accounts. All the while people are glued to their phones. It leads to a loss of focus and decreased productivity. For example, the constant notifications from emails and social media can interrupt work and cause people to switch between tasks, reducing their overall efficiency. There needs to be a distinction between being busy on a device and getting things done. In the extreme, it can lead to addiction issues and/or aggravate psychological disorders.

The Internet, or more broadly, the digital revolution is truly changing the world at multiple levels. But it has also failed to deliver on much of the promise that was once seen as implicit in its technology. If the Internet was expected to provide more competitive markets and accountable businesses, open government, an end to corruption, and decreasing inequality – or, to put it baldly, increased human happiness – it has been a disappointment. The lack of debate about how the Internet should be developed was due, to a certain extent, to the digital revolution exploding at precisely the moment that neoliberalism was in ascendance, its flowery rhetoric concerning “free markets” most redolent. What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.

Instead of a new age of enlightenment through easy communication and universal access to information, we see the emergence of an increasingly polluted information environment. Demands from policy makers for change began nearly a decade ago, when the Federal Trade Commission entered into a consent decree with Facebook designed to prevent the platform from sharing user data with third parties without prior consent. As we learned with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook paid lip service to that consent decree, following a pattern of “apologize, promise to do better, return to business as usual” that persists to this day. The FTC has accused Facebook of breaking antitrust law by gobbling up many smaller social media start-ups and acquiring several large, well-established competitors, in what amounts to a concerted effort to build a social media monopoly. Other platforms, especially Google and Twitter, have also resisted calls to change business models partly responsible for the amplification of hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories.

There are two aspects of safety that require attention: product development and business models.  The challenge with business models is harmful content is unusually profitable. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter monetize through advertising, the value of which depends on user attention. Platforms use algorithms to amplify content that maximizes user engagement. Hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories are particularly engaging – they trigger our flight or fight instinct, which forces us to pay attention – so the algorithms amplify them more than most content. Other platform tools, such as Facebook Groups and the recommendation engines of each platform, increase engagement with harmful content. There are at least four areas that need regulation: safety, privacy, competition, and honesty. Only by coordinating action across all four will policy makers have any hope of reducing the harm from internet platforms.

Today the Internet has become controlled by a handful of companies who exercise an unprecedented level of control over people’s lives. When these companies were in their infancy, like the internet itself, they were synonymous with innovation. However, these tech giants are abusing their market power to undermine fair competition and free-market capitalism. Big Tech sympathizers are undermining the long-term welfare of consumers and small businesses because these companies use their market power and low prices to crowd out competition, further perpetuate their monopoly and reduce incentives for innovation. Google and Facebook’s stranglehold on the online news and ad market has allowed them to benefit from journalistic content without paying for it — cutting off revenue needed to pay reporters, photographers, and editors to cover local news in their communities. Over 2,000 newspapers have closed since 2004, in an industry was once among the largest employers in America.

For Marcuse the one-dimensional man is closely related to both consumerism and mass media that together serve as an ideological apparatus which reproduces itself through its subjects. This apparatus promotes conformity and is aimed at preventing resistance. Marcuse introduces the concept of the “one dimensional man” as someone who is subjected to a new kind of totalitarianism in the form of consumerist and technological capitalism. A man under capitalism is “one dimensional” since he bears no trace of the conflicts which make him multi-dimensional and capable of change. This is why Marcuse believe that people under Liberal Western capitalism are no freer than people under totalitarian role, their oppression is just transparent. The struggle that Hegel envisioned is the great tension between ‘is’ and ‘ought,’ between the way things are and the way they ought to be. The necessary ingredient for Hegel’s philosophy was freedom of action, not just freedom of thought.

Hegel who saw a world governed by individual self-interest believed that we are controlled by external forces, and are nothing but pawns in the game. The internal strains today’s system faces includes: increasing income and wealth inequality within economies, declining intergenerational mobility, mounting economic and social polarization, and rising influence of wealth in politics leading to the concentration of both economic and political power in the hands of an elite and a weakening of democratic polity. According to Marcuse, social domination has resulted in social unhappiness which can be alleviated only by a fundamental change in society itself. Hegel stresses a state needs a strong and effective central public authority – and believes reforms should always stress legal equality and the public welfare. Moreover, Hegel repeats the need for strong state regulation of the economy, which if left to its own workings is blind to the needs of the social community.


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