The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Mark Zuckerberg: The Most Dangerous Presidential Candidate Who Isn’t Yet

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

If I’m honest, the main reason I can hardly bear to look at Facebook isn’t its well-documented negative effect on mental health, its tedious photos of people I barely know and hardly remember, or the videos it automatically generates of the lowest and most desperate moments from my life, accompanied by ukulele.

None of that. I’ve come to hate Facebook because every so often, a box appears on the screen telling me I might want to like the Facebook page for Mark Zuckerberg. And there he is, grinning like a cartoon imp at me and millions of other unfortunates, intruding with his gangly stomp and his eyes full of monstrous wonder.

I do not like Mark Zuckerberg. But he wants me to.

Let’s not pretend Zuckerberg isn’t up to something, and whatever it is, he shouldn’t be allowed to do it. He’s claimed repeatedly that he’s not interested in making a presidential run, but if he isn’t, his behavior simply makes no sense. Normal, everyday megalomaniacal billionaires might decide to go on a year-long, 50-state tour of America, dropping in on hard-working folks and small business owners, publicly rhapsodizing about the food in every roadside diner they happen to come across. But they probably wouldn’t do it while accompanied by President Obama’s former campaign photographer. Tech giants might be keen to hire some political intelligence. But if it was just smarts Zuckerberg was after, he wouldn’t have snapped up the strategist and in-house pollster who disastrously mismanaged the last election for Hillary Clinton. Our new breed of dorky oligarch micro-messiahs might constantly promote Big Ideas That Could Save World. But they don’t proclaim that the good people of Wilton, Iowa, “share these values around mobility.”

So much for innovation. Mark Zuckerberg can send solar-powered drones to beam Facebook-only internet across the global south, but he can’t deviate from the tired folksy script of every other self-important grifter who decided he wanted the power of life and death over every human being on the planet.

There are some very good reasons why Mark Zuckerberg should not be allowed anywhere near the presidency. For a start, he will lose—to Trump or to whatever other monstrosity the Republicans run against him. He can only embody the politics of bland aspiration and imperious technocratic mumblings, alienating the left and inflaming the right. Second, with the entire media basically functioning as a command economy run by Facebook, Zuckerberg in office would constitute a conflict of interests and a potential for corruption so vast it would make any of Trump’s misdeeds look like minor accounting problems. Third, it would entrench the long slow rot of electoral politics, permanently establishing the nuclear codes as the private property of TV clowns and gussied-up motivational speakers. Fourth, he keeps on describing Facebook as a “community” based on “friendship,” rather than what it is—a social utility that occasionally reveals itself as a seething plasm of technologically mediated dislocation. Finally, the tech industry is a hive of inflated egos and reckless self-regard, widening the wealth gap, steadily consigning most of the human population of Earth to the status of surplus flesh, and it must not be let anywhere near political power.

All of these are very good reasons. But they’re not the most pressing or the most urgent. The real reason all Zuckerberg’s dreams of power have to be crushed now before they bear terrible fruit is this: in the 13 years since he first launched Facebook, he never gave us the dislike button.

If you want to know what Zuckerberg would be like as the warlord-in-chief of human history’s most terrifying empire, go to Facebook and look at the seamless nothing where the dislike button ought to be. It’s not just that it’s thoroughly undemocratic. For as long as Facebook has been an inescapable fact of life, its users have been clamoring for the ability to dislike each other’s posts, and Zuckerberg will not give it to them. Instead, we’ve gotten a series of incoherent cosmetic overhauls—groups are now pages, pages now have groups for pages—that nobody asked for and which are met with an immediate hatred that gives way to impotent acceptance.

It says a lot about his style of leadership. He knows what’s best for us, and he’ll do it, and what we think doesn’t really matter. But it’s more fundamental than that. Commenting on his refusal to add the dislike button, Zuckerberg said, “Some people have asked for a dislike button because they want to be able to say, ‘That thing isn’t good.’ That’s not something that we think is good… I don’t think there needs to be a voting mechanism on Facebook about whether posts are good or bad. I don’t think that’s socially very valuable or good for the community to help people share the important moments in their lives.”

He wants to deprive people of their ability to say no.

What’s at stake is nothing less than the possibility of negation or distinction. After all, at the core of managerial centrism is an instinctive reluctance to say that anything is good or bad. Zuckerberg’s idea is that Facebook can be a discursive space without conflict, in which people can simply share what they want, and meet a quantifiable reward. Everything starts with zero likes and grows from there: you accrue social currency mollusc-like onto yourself, until you’re encased in a hard shell of likes and shares. Everything finds its inherent value, and a community is formed. It’s a shadowless world of pure positivity. But the ability to oppose is essential for anything approaching a critical activity; it’s only by some kind of negation that thought can wrench itself free from what simply is. Negativity, as Hegel puts it, “is the energy of unconditional thinking.” A world of countable positivity is a world that is, essentially, mute.

More simply, this is not how society or politics really work. They do not form a kind of harmonious totality, where we all start from the same place and reach upward. Politics is a sphere of competing interests, agonisms and class struggle, in which the success of one set of aims always means the defeat of others. The expansion of labor rights means muzzling a powerful class of industrial capitalists; civil rights for ethnic minorities means tearing apart an entrenched system of white supremacy. Politics is struggle. But in the Facebook utopia, struggle is supposed to be impossible. There’s no contestation; instead, what is deemed to be bad is simply canceled out, removed silently and overnight by a team of invisible moderators.

In this context, a lot of Zuckerberg’s weirder pronouncements start to make sense. Earlier this year, he published a long, jargon-choked manifesto titled Building Global Community. He wants the world to be coded like Facebook—and by Facebook—as a community based on connections and commonality. The struggles going on in the world don’t need to be won, they just need to be subsumed through a greater inclusion in this community. It’s padded out by a lot of friendly sounding pap like:

“The purpose of any community is to bring people together to do things we couldn’t do on our own. To do this, we need ways to share new ideas and share enough common understanding to actually work together.”

In the end, it can all be summarized in five words. No dislike button, for anybody.

Of course, Zuckerberg isn’t the first to promote these kind of ideas. The notion that a national or supernational entity forms a cohesive community without internal conflict is as old as politics itself, and everywhere it’s put forward it’s as a mask for horrific acts of exploitation within that community. Zuckerberg is different in that he seems to genuinely believe it. This is why he might be the most dangerous presidential candidate yet. In the same way that the Republican party spent decades churning out paranoia and nonsense for a base of frothing reactionaries until they finally found themselves saddled with a president who actually believes everything he reads on Breitbart, the Democrats might be about to create a monster of their own: someone who mouths all their nonsense about never disliking anything and never saying that anything is bad with absolute conviction, a cherub-cheeked gargoyle of pious equanimity, entranced by his own capacity to bring everyone together, as those who suffer are smashed brutally underfoot. And then he’ll turn his terrifying grin toward us, and say: you might like this.

The One Word Guaranteed To Make The Corporate Pundit Class Squirm

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Technocratic elites and their apologists once justified their social standing by claiming simply to know more about the things that matter than everybody else. Maybe it was even a better time. But now it’s gone, and ignorance is power.

A ruling class, dizzying itself with the simultaneous beliefs that most people are fundamentally stupid and don’t know what’s good for them, and that one can exert influence by appealing to the vague cultural markers ordinary people like, has decided to become vigorously, monumentally stupid. You can see this process play out whenever one of its leading journalists is forced to reckon with the word “neoliberalism.”

The same people who love to dream up strange and senseless new conceptual systems, who pore over the minor details of insurance law with a philatelist’s perverse giddiness, who think that “innovation” or “aspiration” are good and worthwhile concepts, will suddenly slacken their jaws and cross their eyes, and insist that one of the most studied and documented concepts in modern sociology simply has no meaning. Do you really expect ordinary people to know what you mean if you start talking about something as dry and academic as neoliberalism? Do you really think you could use it to “to strike up a conversation with some strangers in a bowling alley in Toledo”?

That line belongs to New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who recently penned a diatribe titled “How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult of Liberals.” He claims that “neoliberal” has become a term of abuse, by which socialists try to distinguish themselves from good moderate liberals. It’s a meaningless term, he claims, entirely useless “as an analytic tool.” But by using this epithet, the left can pretend that the Democratic Party was once the home of a robust New Deal social democracy, but has been hijacked by right-leaning forces. Exactly how all this happened is never actually discussed.

As a political columnist, Chait has his admirable qualities. His output is prodigious: on an average day, he’ll pump out around three articles for the magazine, which is certainly more Jonathan Chait than any reader could possibly handle. But this creates its own problems. He tends to repeat himself, as with a series of virtually identical screeds insisting that socialism is both entirely irrelevant and a mortal danger, or a similarly monotonous current on the evils of political correctness. Or sometimes, he’ll be forced to write about things he doesn’t really understand. And Jonathan Chait simply does not understand neoliberalism.

As a comrade pointed out to me, “where most pundits simply rip off Wikipedia for their pieces, Chait doesn’t even bother to check it.” The name Milton Friedman does not appear once in Chait’s discussion of neoliberalism. Neither do Friedrich von Hayek, James M Buchanan, Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. He also conveniently omits mention of Augusto Pinochet. (Chile seems to be a particular blind spot for Chait—in his most recent anti-socialist column, he writes that “every Marxist government in history has monopolized power,” which is not just nakedly false, but happily conceals what his friends in Washington tend to do to those socialist governments that don’t monopolize power.) Instead, Chait decides to spend the opening chunk of his essay talking about how a few fellow journalists decided to start using the word “neoliberalism” to refer to their own “moderately liberal” opinions.

I don’t doubt that they did, but the neoliberalism of Chait and his Washington Monthly pals is not the one that despoiled the globe or crushed working-class solidarity or restructured social consciousness; it’s not the ideology that anyone who calls Chait a neoliberal now is talking about. The fact that Chait thought the term was coined in the 1980s, when its general sense was already in use (Friedman’s “Neo-Liberalism and Its Prospects” was published in 1951), only shows that his cluelessness hasn’t come on with age. Instead of “neoliberalism” denoting a specific set of economic and social practices that affect everyone, Chait uses it as a signifier for the strange, nameless feeling of hurt and frustration he experiences whenever someone lobs the descriptor at him.

Here is how Chait defines neoliberalism. He notes, at one point, that “the widely publicized influence of neoconservatives within the Bush administration changed the connotation of ‘neo'” and that “by the end of Bush’s term, it became an intensifier.” “Neo” means bad, and liberalism means liberalism. A neoliberal, then, is a liberal who is more right-wing. But it also refers to capitalism as such. Chait writes:

“‘Neoliberal’ means capitalist, as distinguished from socialist. That meaning has rarely had much application in American politics, because liberals and conservatives both believe (to starkly differing degrees) in capitalism. If ‘neoliberal’ simply describes a belief in some role for market forces, then it is literally true that liberals and conservatives are both ‘neoliberal.'”

He adds, “It is strange, though, to apply a single term to opposing combatants in America’s increasingly bitter partisan struggle.”

Except that it’s not.

Neoliberalism is not particularly hard to define. It’s not only an ideology or a set of principles; it’s a system of practices, and an era, the one we’re living in now. What it means, over and above everything, is untrammeled ruling-class power, an end to the class-collaborationism of the post-war years and a vicious assault of the rich against the poor. This is achieved through market mechanisms, fiscal austerity and the penetration of capitalist relations into every possible facet of human life. It doesn’t mean that the role of the state vanishes—an essential precondition for neoliberalism is the destruction of working-class power and collective bargaining, and this has to be achieved, often brutally, through laws and their enforcement. There isn’t just “some role for market forces” either, but their invasion into every fathomable social situation.

Warehouse workers are electronically monitored and made to compete against each other in efficiency rankings? This is neoliberalism. The young and unemployed are encouraged to build a “personal brand” and sell themselves as a product? This is neoliberalism. If you don’t like any of this, you’re encouraged to shop ethically, reduce your personal carbon footprint and consume vaguely antagonistic culture-commodities. This is neoliberalism.

The result of all this is that our society has become atomized: we see all our relations as essentially competitive, and the people around us as rivals for scarce goods; we are all, socially and existentially, alone. Everything we do is turned into a market transaction, a form of buying and selling. And this is because the free and unfettered market isn’t a neutral system for processing human interactions, but an instrument of class power.

It’s true that, as Chait points out, the term “neoliberal” can describe much of the broad spectrum of American politics. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s important to be able to give a name to the awful totality that surrounds us. Once it can be fixed as an object, something of which we have a shared perception, we can start to think outside of it. It was not always like this; once, capitalism took other forms. Without a concept that points out the grim sameness that seeps through a corroding politics, you end up like Jonathan Chait: obsessing over the differences between two parties, as one gives the rich their foot-bath and the other gently nuzzles at their scalps; being confronted with a well-developed theory of political and social conditions, and deciding that it must somehow exist only as an insult against you.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Header image source.