Here is a new article by Evgeny Morozov, arguing that increased access to the Internet is much more likely to consolidate authoritarian regimes than undermine them. The idea is that the Internet has allowed these regimes to provide their citizens with coveted cultural goods at low cost. In other words, by allowing (limited) access to the Internet, authoritarian regimes have decreased their cost for the “circus” component of bread and circuses.
That is interesting in itself, but I was particularly struck by the following line, which I think has important implications for political theory:
“authoritarian states and modern democracies are very much alike: both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology.”
This line seems to have a ring of truth to it, and it opens the door to all kinds of theoretical questions – with potentially troubling answers. On the one hand, hedonism as the primary aim of society might actually be a good thing. The advancement of human happiness is the highest aim of Liberalism, and to whatever extent Hulu and Lolcats assist in advancing happiness, they are social goods. This is, in a nutshell, the thesis of Tyler Cowen’s new book, Create Your Own Economy.
On the other hand, this sort of thing sure looks like an example of Mill’s “lower pleasures.” Sure, a pig will not have much use for Youtube, but Socrates would probably have better things to do with his time. This sort of idea has been around for a long time – for example, TV was christened the “idiot box” before my parents were born – but the rise of the Internet sure seems to have enhanced the ability of the immature and imbecile to remain that way.
If this just had implications for entertainment, then no big deal. People like what they like, and I’m not going to argue that people who like watching reality television should start watching Frontline all the time. Television IS a matter of taste. However, as Morozov points out, this has political implications as well. His point is that in authoritarian regimes, access to this form of entertainment can raise the public’s happiness level to a point where they may be willing to tolerate oppressive government, when they might not have in the past. Yes, you may not like the dictator, but joining the opposition is not worth the risk when you can at least watch re-runs of Friends.
But there are also implications for democratic regimes, and in my mind, this is connected to David Brooks’s excellent article in the New York Times concerning the histrionics following the failed terrorist bombing of the Northwest Airlines flight into Detroit last week. As Brooks rightly points out, this episode was not a catastrophic failure. In fact, it was inevitable. No matter what kinds of precautions we take, some bad things (including terrorist attacks) are going to happen. No government institution can stop every single threat to our safety and welfare from occurring. And yet we see media commentators and political actors calling for “overhauls” and even for Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano to resign. This is, in a word, stupid. It is preposterously dumb, and unbefitting of the world’s oldest major democracy.
Or consider Denis Dutton’s op-ed in the Times recalling the hyperbole surrounding Y2k. The public sphere re-interpreted a fixable technical problem into an end-of-days scenario, mostly for entertainment purposes. That might just be silliness, but Dutton points out the political consequences: “Apocalyptic scenarios are a diversion from real problems — poverty, terrorism, broken financial systems — needing intelligent attention…turning practical problems into cosmic cataclysms takes us further away from actual solutions.”
To tie this rant together, I wonder whether the increasing role of entertainment in people’s daily lives has made them relatively less capable of dealing with the problems of the real world. The War on Terror is interpreted through the lens of the Fox show “24”, etc. Another example is an appalling advertisement for the National Guard playing in the local movie theater which looks like it was shot by Michael Bay. As people increasingly use low-cost entertainment to satisfy their desires for happiness, they become increasingly incapable of making sense of the real world and responding appropriately, and, the dominant aesthetics of the entertainment world end up driving politics.
Harumph harumph harumph