The strange death of the liberal individual

Only a comprehensive reconfiguration of property rights over the increasingly cloud-based instruments of production, distribution, collaboration, and communication can rescue the foundational liberal idea of liberty as self-ownership. Reviving the liberal individual thus requires precisely what liberals detest: a revolution.

My father was the epitome of the liberal individual, a splendid irony for a lifelong Marxist. To make a living, he had to lease his labour to the boss of a steel plant in Eleusis. But during every lunch break he wandered blissfully in the open-air backyard of the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, where he luxuriated in the discovery of ancient steles full of clues that antiquity’s technologists were more advanced than previously thought.

Following his return home, at just after 5 p.m. every day, and a late siesta, he would emerge ready to share in our family life and to write up his findings in academic articles and books. His life at the factory was, in short, neatly separated from his personal life.

It reflected a time when even leftists like us thought that, if nothing else, capitalism had granted us sovereignty over ourselves, albeit within limits. However hard one worked for the boss, one could at least fence off a portion of one’s life and, within that fence, remain autonomous, self-determining, free. We knew that only the rich were truly free to choose, that the poor were mostly free to lose, and that the worst slavery was that of anyone who had learned to love their chains. Still, we appreciated the limited self-ownership we had.

Young people today have been denied even this small mercy. From the moment they take their first steps, they are taught implicitly to see themselves as a brand, yet one that will be judged according to its perceived authenticity. (And that includes potential employers: “No one will offer me a job,” a graduate told me once “until I have discovered my true self.”) Marketing an identity in today’s online society is not optional. Curating their personal lives has become some of the most important work young people do.

Before posting any image, uploading any video, reviewing any movie, sharing any photograph or tweet, they must be mindful of whom their choice will please or alienate. They must somehow work out which of their potential “true selves” will be found most attractive, continually testing their opinions against their notion of what the average opinion among online opinion-makers might be. Because every experience can be captured and shared, they are continually consumed by the question of whether to do so. And even if no opportunity actually exists for sharing the experience, that opportunity can readily be imagined, and will be. Every choice, witnessed or otherwise, becomes an act in the careful construction of an identity.[

One need not be a leftist to see that the right to a bit of time each day when one is not for sale has all but vanished. The irony is that the liberal individual was snuffed out neither by fascist brownshirts nor by Stalinist commissars. It was killed off when a new form of capital began to instruct youngsters to do that most liberal of things: be yourself. Of all the behavioural modifications that what I call cloud capital has engineered and monetized, this one is surely its overarching and crowning achievement.

Possessive individualism was always detrimental to mental health. The techno-feudal society that cloud capital is fashioning made things infinitely worse when it demolished the fence that provided the liberal individual with a refuge from the labour market. Cloud capital has shattered the individual into fragments of data, an identity comprising choices expressed by clicks, which its algorithms are able to manipulate in ways no human mind can grasp. It has produced individuals who are not so much possessive as possessed, or rather persons incapable of self-possession. It has diminished our capacity to focus by co-opting our attention.

We have not become weak-willed. No, our focus has been hijacked by a new ruling class. And because the algorithms embedded in cloud capital are known to reinforce patriarchy, invidious stereotypes, and pre-existing oppression, the most vulnerable – girls, the mentally ill, the marginalized, and the poor – suffer the most.

If fascism taught us anything, it is our susceptibility to demonizing stereotypes and the ugly attraction (and potency) of emotions like righteousness, fear, envy, and loathing that they arouse in us. In our contemporary social reality, the cloud brings us face to face with the feared and loathed “other.” And because online violence seems bloodless and anodyne, we are more likely to respond to this “other” with taunting, demeaning language and bile. Bigotry is techno-feudalism’s emotional compensation for the frustrations and anxieties we experience in relation to identity and focus.

Comment moderators and hate-speech regulation can’t stop this brutalization because it is intrinsic to cloud capital, whose algorithms optimize for the cloud rents that flow more copiously toward Big Tech’s owners from hatred and discontent. Regulators cannot regulate artificial-intelligence-driven algorithms that even their authors cannot understand. For liberty to have a chance, cloud capital needs to be socialized.

My father believed that finding something timelessly beautiful to focus on, as he did while wondering among the relics of Greek antiquity, is our only defence from the demons circling our soul. I have tried to practice this over the years in my own way. But in the face of techno-feudalism, acting alone, isolated, as liberal individuals will not get us very far. Cutting ourselves off from the internet, switching off our phones, and using cash instead of plastic is no solution. Unless we band together, we will never civilize or socialize cloud capital – and never reclaim our own minds from its grip.

And herein lies the greatest contradiction: Only a comprehensive reconfiguration of property rights over the increasingly cloud-based instruments of production, distribution, collaboration, and communication can rescue the foundational liberal idea of liberty as self-ownership will require. Reviving the liberal individual thus requires precisely what liberals detest: a new revolution.


This article was originally published on Project Syndicate

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