Discover more from The Path Not Taken
Liberal democracy may not be ended with a gun, but on a Zoom call
How corporations and social justice purists are using technology to undermine privacy
Historically, homes and workplaces are not political domains. This reflects technological and administrative limitations, intrusion being practically difficult. The rise of the modern state entailed greater intervention into home and work, culminating in totalitarian ideologies which politicized and monitored these spheres. Modern liberalism was a response to these developments, defending home and work from political intrusion.
Recent times have seen changes. Modern technology allows employees to be contacted at home. Social media has given politics a domestic edge, enabling the broadcast of opinions hitherto confined to homes. But the pandemic has entailed a major shift. At the same time as organizations have embraced social justice ideology, homes have become virtual workplaces. Zoom exposes private details to public view. Colleagues might see your bookcase. Should ‘screenshare’ or ‘mute’ be used injudiciously, they might glimpse the content of your computer or hear a private conversation. Exceptionally, they might catch you in a private act.
Politics compounds this. If employers advocate ideological positions, employees with different views will fear detection. Though the numbers who commit career-ending mistakes appear small, this is beside the point. Zoom’s intrusiveness erodes liberty. If some are punished for transgressions, others will worry. When designing the panopticon, a jail which could be overseen by a single guard, Bentham noted that the observation of prisoners was a secondary goal. More pertinently, prisoners would feel that they were being observed.
This has been most marked in white-collar sectors, reflecting widespread use of IT. These industries are also most politicized. In recent years, corporations and public sectors have embraced social justice liberalism, an ideology which emphasizes distinct identities and the corruption of existing elites. Significantly, social justice liberals regard everything as political, contrasting with traditional liberalism. Increasingly, social justice liberalism and technological innovation have become intertwined. Following the rise of social media, social justice liberalism thrives on the identification and punishment of transgressions. This reflects the class basis of social justice liberalism. The ideology is popular among young sociocultural workers who are excluded from labour and housing markets, associated with the problem of elite overproduction. Given these resentments, social justice liberals relish opportunities to defrock elites.
Technological advances enhance potential to bring down elites. Parts of social justice liberalism have always been consistent with such tactics. The ideology distrusts liberal rights, perceiving them as a means of defending privilege. Instead, social justice liberals emphasize activism, seeing this as a way for the ‘marginalized’ (i.e. those who are not white and heterosexual) to counteract power. Relatedly, there are few conditions in which social justice liberals will censure the tactics of the marginalized. Some deflected attacks on Jussie Smollett, found guilty of faking a racist attack on himself. As technology has developed, these aspects of social justice liberalism have become more pronounced. Social justice Twitter has become versed in relevant arguments, repeating them after the newest cancellation. As they say, ‘I don’t believe in cancel culture, but I believe in consequence culture’. Moreover, this community thrives on such incidents, increasing their frequency and scope. Transgressions need not be political. Star reporter Jeffrey Toobin, caught masturbating when he thought his camera was off, was still fired by the New Yorker; when elites are resented and such evidence is regarded as legitimate, any transgression is sufficient. After all, everything is political.
Developments within organizations reinforce such trends. In recent years, corporations and public sector organizations have embraced remote working and social justice liberalism. Though remote working was adopted in an emergency, organizations tend not to revert to inefficient methods; remote working appears here to stay. Employers have a long history of observing workers; from this perspective, domestic intrusion is unsurprising. More broadly, social justice liberalism is consistent with the interests of capital. Aside from distracting from unethical corporate behaviour, the ideology enables engagement with new consumer and employee preferences; crucially, social justice liberalism says little about redistribution, this being a corporate red line. Social media cements this relationship. Activists dominate platforms such as Twitter, orchestrating campaigns against individual transgressors which petition employers; only brave organizations defy them. This nexus of neoliberalism and social justice is becoming integral to both ideologies and reshaping capitalism and politics. If unchecked, it will make our century a more illiberal one.
Admittedly, our societies have defence mechanisms. Liberal standards of privacy remain codified in Western legal systems, courts defending citizens against corporate intrusiveness. Increasingly, people recognize threats to basic privacy; campaigns against big tech have been heartening. Opponents of these developments might campaign for new employment rights. Of the ‘Zoom’ dismissals since the start of the pandemic, many have been underpinned by evidence which has been gathered unfairly. This is unacceptable; if people have been caught out unknowingly, there should be safeguards. Closing Pandora’s box will be difficult. Organizations will guard gains in efficiency. Social justice liberals will cling to illiberal tactics. But the struggle is vital. In liberal democracies, homes should be private and workplaces should be politically neutral.
If you enjoyed reading this, do think about subscribing! Subscription is free – all it means is that you’ll receive a weekly email. But every new subscriber makes me very happy 😊 😊 😊