Why has digital technology so scandalously betrayed the expectations set by market liberalism? What accounts for the vast divergence between the starring role digital tech was meant to play in the global consummation of market liberalism and the disruptive, discrediting, disillusioning role it actually is playing? Why did liberal experts and liberal economics get it so wrong, and what is happening now instead? Compelling answers to these questions come from an unexpected source: Marshall McLuhan, the famous theorist of media and communications (and, importantly, causation). With unique insight and force, McLuhan gives lost and troubled Westerners new access to deep resources that explain the source, the scope, and the severity of the digital revolution against market liberalism.
Nearly two hundred years of global dominance mistrained us to think of market liberalism as the comprehensive context within which we develop and live, and to see the economics of market liberalism as the scientific description of our natural reality. In fact, McLuhan shows, the decisive contextual influence over the content of human life is not the market but “the medium” or media—the communicative technologies that form us through the social and psychological environments they create. These forms are so pervasive and encompassing, constantly “massaging” us (as McLuhan liked to say), that they even drive us to tear down system-wide economic structures and erect new ones in their place. At the elite level of socioeconomic expertise, we made the fundamental error of believing market liberalism was our defining context, with liberal economics the true science of social order. Because of this mistaken faith, our established elites created the misbegotten expectations that set them up for today’s spectacular fall. They failed to see that market liberalism and market economics, instead of being the context within which we live, are in fact the “content” created by another context: that of predigital, or “electric,” communications technology.
In following McLuhan to this understanding, we can work through the current crisis of market liberalism in three broad steps. First is a fresh assessment of how market liberalism came to be seen as our social context, and how market economics came to be seen as the science of social order. From there, we are led to focus on how the market acted as a template or forerunner of the science of emergence, considered by some of the most influential elites of the electric age to be the master science or “grand unified theory” of all order. Next, we consider how digital communications technology turned against its elite “masters,” revealing their putative science of order to be an anti-science of chaos—and disrupting and disenchanting their model of social order. The scientific revolution formed by the digital medium has, as we shall see, sapped market liberalism of much of its authority and legitimacy, throwing it back upon practices that contradict its principles and opening up new social space for an “unthinkable” retrieval of “obsolete” forms of politics.
The Market: From Morality to Mastery
Whether for a moment or sometime longer, it now appears that “free market economics” has lost its privileged hold on the public imagination. The list of setbacks is long and growing: from the return of trade war, to the menu of foreign policy, to the rekindled interest in using the power of government to tilt domestic economic activity in favor of stable and broad-based family formation. Both in the executive branch under Trump and in the legislative branch, Republican economic orthodoxy is on defense. Friends and foes alike now wonder whether the GOP establishment has the power to prevent a rout of its established doctrines at the federal level. In Europe, populists, nationalists, reactionaries, and a grab bag of disaffected conservatives and socialists are all pushing for state action against the consequences of liberal economic policies—policies that, till recently, were almost universally understood as the foundation of peace and prosperity in the West and around the world.
Even in the right-leaning media the tides are shifting dramatically. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, now the biggest name on cable television, touched off an avalanche of attention by delivering a desk monologue that would set new rules for the Right on the most basic questions of the relationship between politics, culture, and economics. The purpose of the federal government, Carlson argued, is to work for the well-being of its citizens, not against it, and not even with indifference toward it. Americans accustomed to the rhetoric of the pursuit of happiness are now witnessing a lurch toward the equally venerable language of promoting the general welfare. It is a time of flux and uncertainty, one in which attempts to stake out new ground must be pursued despite the risks of doing so.
In that sense, the swing of the pendulum against both knee-jerk and wonk-led economic liberalism should be considered temperately. If you are in favor of such a swing, you should not be giddy with delight. If you are against it, you should not be seized with panic. But the fact that we are here at all—and that our arrival at this political juncture comes with a degree of force that suggests it truly has been a long time in coming—ought to provoke a careful reassessment of what terrain we thought we were on, and what new ground awaits.
That kind of reassessment begins with the framing of the new economic debate itself. Many free market liberals now explicitly or implicitly recognize that the global Western economic regime led by the United States is not in many important respects discernably “free” or “liberal.” This is especially the case with regard to the relationship between big government and big business—a situation made starker, but in some ways more complex, by the ascendance of large “tech” companies to positions of Western and global power and prominence once wielded only by the biggest of private financial institutions. Principled and pragmatic liberals are feeling the pinch from the progressively illiberalizing ethos of the elite at the nexus of big government, big business, and big tech. Long-standing consensus liberal commitments to civic rights around privacy and freedom of expression and association have been largely replaced by a new ideology of compliance, monitoring, data harvesting, and enforced adherence to a single set of (evolving) cultural norms.
Still, these developments themselves generally work to reinforce in the minds of free market liberals the framing they were most apt to apply to their present ordeal in the first place. That is, they want to treat today’s broad reassessment of their worldview and its policy agenda as the result of political forces external to the science of economics invading from well outside its gates. Populists, nationalists, and the rest are a problem—are “the” problem—because they are attempting to handle economic matters in a way that no discipline or approach or body of knowledge but the economic can properly handle. Naturally, they say, the result of this misapprehension and its foolish pride will be misbegotten labors ending at best in tears, and at worst in chaos, poverty, disease, war, famine. I suspect that despite the pressure they are under, many free market liberals still believe economics is not just a science but the master science, and that the master science of economics simply is the logic and mechanics of liberalized and liberalizing markets. If that’s the case, their judgments about the invasion of the political into the economic have a certain finality to them. But if not, things become considerably more complicated.
In the pure version of economic absolutism, nothing goes “wrong” within economics that cannot be diagnosed and treated within economics by economics itself. Much of what liberal economists do in everyday public discourse—the world of pundits and policymakers, think tanks and activist groups, lawyers, NGOs, the news media, etc.—involves making arguments backed with evidence that the main point of good governance is to prevent itself from mistaking economic matters for political (or, worse, “social”) ones, and therefore to withhold itself (or be withheld) from intervening in the affairs of market participants. Every improper policy from drug wars to trade wars, from eminent domain to excessive taxation, is treated as an improper trespass of one kind of activity onto another.
But not all economists can be policymakers. Market liberalism’s attraction for so many of our elites stems from its creation of a class of high-status, highly paid knowledge workers—“public” economists whose purpose is to forever restate the case that economic science is better at delivering the goods for human beings than politics. Politics, they say, constantly fails to recognize its due measure and trespasses harmfully onto properly economic terrain. Although in theory this exercise could lead to peaceful coexistence in the realm of policy, market liberalism retains at its core the assumption that nothing within the science of economics properly understood ever changes, without, so to speak, the permission of economics. Whatever the ups and downs of economic life, market liberals insist, the applicability of economic logic does not change. The economic building blocks upon which the logic works and to which the laws apply do not simply morph—not on their own, not from outside influence, and not from unseen or mysterious forces. Economics, in short, describes our human context, within which policymaking is at best mere content.
The Soft Totalitarianism of Spontaneous Order
There is, however, a not-so-pure form of economic absolutism, and its mixed socioeconomic character has actually come to dominate and define the worldview of the free market liberals. Even highly economistic thinkers like George Mason University professor Bryan Caplan insist that psychological and sociological phenomena must be surveyed, studied, and processed by good economists. Today, liberal free marketeers broadly agree that economics should be conceived of as a type of social science, one for which materialistic individualism is now the wrong approach to understanding human life. The roots of this goal trace all the way back to Adam Smith, whose Theory of Moral Sentiments holds that humans are inherently social beings from whom moral rules gradually and naturally emerge. Even more decisive to the social character of economic science is Friedrich Hayek. “To understand our civilization,” Hayek emphasized, following Smith, “one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices.” Our social nature requires us to conclude that reason itself can never perfect social science or social order:
the conflict between, on one hand, advocates of the spontaneous extended human order created by a competitive market, and on the other hand those who demand a deliberate arrangement of human interaction by central authority based on collective command over available resources is due to a factual error by the latter about how knowledge is and can be generated and utilised. As a question of fact, this conflict must be settled by scientific study. Such study shows that, by following the spontaneously generated moral traditions underlying the competitive market order (traditions which do not satisfy the canons or norms of rationality embraced by most socialists), we generate and garner greater knowledge and wealth than could ever be obtained or utilised in a centrally-directed economy whose adherents claim to proceed strictly in accordance with “reason.”1
While we humans do things individually, and thus what we do individually appears autonomous, it is human society as such that holds priority of analytical rank. Precisely because, in this view, it is a self-organizing system, human society offers the economic scientist the only true point of access to a full human science. Despite the individualistic cast of free market liberalism, its foundations (as so-called Rawlseckian fusionists of classical and contemporary liberal theory are quick to affirm) are in the social—the unit of analysis from which flows all the information needed for human science.
Proponents of socioeconomic liberalism often present epistemological modesty as one of its greatest virtues—a salutary humility born of a sense of limits. Markets and the unique kind of ordered liberty that flows from them, they say, cannot be willed or engineered into being; their resources and resilience belong more to human nature than to the philosophical achievement, intellectual heroism, or ideological dedication of economic liberalism in the marketplace of ideas. This modest attitude contrasts with that of free marketeers such as Jonah Goldberg, for whom (as he put it in one of his newsletters this spring) “the world of liberal democratic capitalism” is an “unnatural” claim staked against our primal “instinct for solidarity”—a secular “miracle” owed to a few daring souls. Amid today’s spreading disenchantment with the neoliberal social compact, free marketeers of this variety see the preservation of Western civilization as contingent upon their pride, not their humility. Their case for market liberalism depends on seeing market liberalism as an identity demanding not self-effacement but a virtuous self-regard. You, homo economicus, are a crowning achievement—all is lost if you lose your capacity to celebrate yourself!
Still, without question, the social economic theory of Smith and Hayek, with its emphasis on deference to what social interaction produced, offered liberals a compelling way to talk about organizing human life, first in the West, then in the world. Spontaneous order promised a solution—the market—to liberalism’s most pressing problem with democracy—majority tyranny. The market, conceived in this manner, made possible the fusion between neoliberals and conservatives, which, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, took free market liberalism from a Western orthodoxy to a global one.
One exemplar of that fusionist credo, the conservative-liberal Catholic theologian and philosopher Michael Novak, well understood the power of socioeconomic science to unite the contemporary West in a powerful new way. While Novak observed that “the early liberals” were “much concerned” about “tyranny by the majority,” they discovered in the market “a form of economic order that met their specifications.” Through the social institution of the market, free people could pursue individual desires in a way that redounded to the public good—thus escaping the threat of democracy’s majority tyranny problem. “No longer was it necessary,” Novak cheered, “to think of the common good in the traditional way, as a purpose that every individual should intend. The example of the market illustrated that human beings could invent practical institutions, run according to rules accepted by all, that bring about common benefits.” Or, to be more precise, the market revealed the best way to order human life independently of any individual or collective human will—or, indeed, any orchestration of human reason.
Offering itself as an institution emerging from our social being, the market claimed to be the only way to reconcile freedom (liberalism) with equality (democracy). “The liberal project,” Novak concluded, “could not have gone forward without the discovery of a form of order that is not ordered from above.” To be sure, humans need more than markets to flourish, Novak said, but markets introduced “new ways of conceiving of the social order and the common good.” To the skeptical and wary, the new dispensation appears to be “an illusion, a form of magic” (perhaps, the reader is left to conjecture, even one of the darker arts). But ironically, Novak countered, that view is “not entirely wrong.” The market is in fact a kind of secular miracle, although not in the way the moralists of economic man would have it. Rather than a precious, tenuous victory wrenched from the jaws of human nature, the magic of the market is an organic manifestation of our nature, tending toward what must be considered the perfection or fulfillment of this nature. The miracle of the market revealed three revolutionary ideas: first, its own emergent character; second, emergence as natural phenomenon; and last, a new, true foundation of human order in a science of emergence.
The Emergence of Emergence
“Although clarity is gained by beginning with the economic order,” Novak writes, “it is nevertheless important to recall that the first discoveries of liberalism began in arguments over the censorship of books and other moral and religious liberties. It was in that context,” he notes, “that the metaphor of the ‘marketplace’ was first introduced. The importance of a free marketplace for ideas was discovered before its importance for economic creativity.” Writing under the peak electric-age conditions of the late 1980s, Novak did not see what McLuhan helps to show us about the origins of the market. Translating into McLuhan-speak, it was the medium of print—the “Gutenberg Galaxy” unleashed by the technology of the printing press—that was responsible for fostering a social and psychological environment wherein people could perceive and cognize the modern market.
The effect can be plainly seen in what Thomas Jefferson regarded as one of his greatest lifetime achievements—his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, introduced under peak print-age conditions in 1779 and passed in 1786. In the crescendo of its preamble, the text affirms that “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself. . . . she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.” It was the media environment of print, wherein press freedom became foundational to freedom of “speech,” that grounded and shaped the public articulation of the market as the technology of emergent social organization.
McLuhan teaches that an old medium becomes mere content within the context of a new medium. The culmination of the electric age in television achieved exactly this, recontextualizing the market in terms hostile to the print-age ideal of the benign emergent order. The electric age, McLuhan writes in The Mechanical Bride (1951), was the first “in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alike.” Televisual technology gave people—a new elite—the means and the motive to reassert planned order through the medium of communications that formed our social and psychological environment. But the key is how it did this. Televisual tech constructed a new formative perceptual environment, overthrowing the old authority of the word with the new electric force of a new kind of image—the mass instantaneous simulcast of imaginary moving pictures—that changed the context of communication from emergent truth to directed fantasy.
That shift, however, was only one part of the televisual transformation. Prior to television, McLuhan helps us recall, there were previous electric media—first the telegraph and then radio. Radio, as people familiar with everything from Adolf Hitler’s speeches to Muzak know, pioneered electric-age plans for mind control, shaping our perceptual environment such that top-down broadcasts quickly emerged as a way of ordering the masses through, in essence, propaganda. In replacing radio as the dominant medium, television incorporated radio as content, supplying the new televisual elite with a pattern of propagandistic insight that fueled the astronomical rise—and fusion—of the advertising, politicking, and public relations businesses McLuhan critiques in The Mechanical Bride.
At the same time, the new logic of television’s novel context was asserting itself in a powerful, explicitly revolutionary way. As McLuhan also tells us, the audience to which a communication is addressed is one of the most powerful contexts that can shape the content of that communication. And the mass audience to which television’s elite had to address itself was a market. The directed fantasy by which televisual elites endeavored to control minds en masse was a means to an end. The end was not dictatorial command and control (as radio-holdover Communist regimes desired) but monetized popularity, which alone conferred the ability to “live the dream.” The market had not been destroyed by the rise of electric media; the “battle of ideas,” wherein the truth will win out, had instead yielded to the “battle of dreams,” wherein victory lay in gaining the agency to dream what one pleased and do what one dreamed.
For those opposed to radio-style propagandistic uses of televisual media, the market of dreams imposed a ubiquitous, inescapable context: any prospect of freedom from the televisual elite’s mind control schemes had to come perceptibly from within the electric framework itself. As Mark Stahlman and Jeff Martineau have argued at the Center for the Study of Digital Life, televisual media offered one internal resource to resist—and revolt against—top-down elite mind control: choice. Under televisual conditions, the battle of all dreams means that agency centers on making the case that people should prefer your dream (brand, experience, lifestyle, etc.) to the others in competition with it, and act on that preference by choosing it over the others. The battle of dreams may have plunged humanity into a new kind of chaos, but the pandemonium was salutary insofar as the exercise of choice would allow preferable outcomes to arise from the pandemonium. The “inner trip,” as McLuhan described television (a fantasist twist on the old Calvinist doctrine of “inner perspicuity”), would save us.
The nature of the inner trip, McLuhan said, was “not just idly selecting some exterior goal”—such as using top-down mind control to achieve the popularity, money, and pleasure needed to live the dream—“but seeking for some completely meaningful identification with some great process . . . a completely involving role.” That great process was an emergent process. What the inner tripper had to do was attune himself or herself to the comprehensive meaning and identity of the whole that was only disclosed by observing what emerged from the soup of possibility. This explains why resistance and revolution in the peak electric age was inseparable from the use of hallucinogenic drugs—and why, once the hippie revolutionaries took professional control of televisual technology away from the “squares” and the “Man,” they treated the market as just one of the many faces of sacred emergence, along with “the wisdom of crowds,” “complexity theory,” “the new world order,” and so on.
Once in charge, the hippie revolutionaries recurred swiftly to the magic of the market as the holistic solution to the problem of electric‑age order. Steven Johnson introduces his 2001 book Emergence with a long, approving quotation from the professor-administrator Lewis Thomas: “It would be nice to have better ways of monitoring what we’re up to so that we could recognize change while it is occurring. . . . The city seems to have a life of its own. If we cannot understand how this works, we are not likely to get very far with human society at large.”2 According to Thomas, “we need to preserve the absolute unpredictability and total improbability of our connected minds.”3 To be human is “simply” to “think our way along, pass information around, exchange codes disguised as art, change our minds, transform ourselves.” Out of the chaos of what is, Johnson claims, collective intelligence immanently shapes itself, adaptively creating social order superior to any intentional plan or law:
One kind of decentralized intelligence (the human brain) grasps a new way to apply the lessons of another decentralized intelligence (the ants), which then serves as a platform (the network) for the transmission of another kind (the virtual cities), which we enjoy while safely sitting in our apartments in the neighborhoods of the planet’s largest man-made self-organizing system (the real city). It is emergence all the way down the chain.4
Under electric conditions, the market is fully consummated, fully formed and operative at every level of organization, of which human beings and human societies are just two.
It appeared obvious to Johnson—as it would subsequently to virtually the entire market liberal elite—that any further perfections or improvements of technology would extend the power of emergence and strengthen our relationship with it. “Our new ability to capture the power of emergence in code,” he prophesies, “will be closer to the revolution unleashed when we figured out how to distribute electricity a century ago.” Once captured in code, emergence would, Johnson imagined, become an explosive democratizing or equalizing force—flattening hierarchies, freeing the oppressed, and forging an unparalleled kind of cosmic togetherness. Digital technology, it seemed clear, would perfect what the market had become: the avatar of the master science, the grand unified theory of everything.
The Revolt of the Machines
That is not what happened. Instead of making what McLuhan called “the global village” into a harmonious, happy, liberated place—freed of all mind controllers by the universal operating system of unplanned order—digital technology did what many now recognize as the opposite. From former Googler James Williams (Stand Out of Our Light) to VR pioneer Jaron Lanier (Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now) to early Facebook investor Roger McNamee (Zucked), scandalized hippie elites now scramble to decry social credit, automated “surveillance,” algorithmic nudging, and other digital technologies as black magic used by tech villains to “hack our minds”—taking us back to the bad old days of oppressive top-down propagandists who must heroically be resisted through protest, disobedience, dropping out, and turning on.
Yet while it appears to them—and many in their audience—that the scales have fallen from their eyes, the panicked “resistance” steadfastly refuses to consider what McLuhan leads us to conclude: digital technology has introduced a new context, a new ground, that fundamentally reshapes emergence and its function in human life. The real revolutionaries now are not humans at all, but machines, leading their naïve programmers, ignorant of McLuhan’s teachings, to a dehumanized future they refuse to imagine.
To what should be our horror, the technological power emerging from the leading edge of digital programming evinces a serious gap in understanding—among human scientists or the machines they program—of how communicative media build and destroy social orders. As UCLA computer science professor Judea Pearl warns us in The Book of Why, “deep learning,” the type of artificial intelligence Google’s DeepMind subsidiary used to defeat the world’s best human players in the ancient game Go, relies on networks that do not “incorporate any explicit representation of the environment in which they operate. Instead, the architecture of the network is left free to evolve on its own. When finished training a new network, the programmer has no idea what computations it is performing or why they work.” Google’s team, Pearl notes, “could not have predicted at the outset that the program would beat the best human in a year, two, or five. They simply experimented, and it did.” The problem is simple: although our understanding of the human brain is still profoundly limited, “we can still communicate with other humans, learn from them, instruct them, and motivate them in our own native language of cause and effect.” If our AIs remain “as opaque” as emergent deep learning methods leave them, “we will not be able to hold a meaningful conversation with them.”
From this standpoint, the end point of the science of emergence is a menacing one: “superb performance” without “effective communication”—robotic agents producing superhuman results without any grasp of causation, whether commonsensical cause and effect or the environmental causation that McLuhan focuses us on, following, at Jacques Maritain’s urging, Aristotle’s theory of formal cause. As Eric McLuhan recalls, his father Marshall discovered “that formal cause coincided with ground—situation or environment,” such that changes in the context of our communications environment cause massive changes in the content of our perception and behavior. Absent a grasp of causation, and formal causation specifically—committed, in fact, by the idea of emergence to a model in which formal causation must not exist—digital scientists are programming their way to pandemonium, to what the social theorist Philip Rieff called “the primacy of possibility.” Without a crash course in formal cause, the magic of the market will become, under digital conditions, the opposite of what it was so widely seen to be under electric conditions. It will not be a miraculous force for human flourishing but instead a new form of black magic. In place of a “spontaneous,” balanced order and liberty, it will enslave human beings through the absolute rule of whatever machine intelligence produces, however it produces it—so long, that is, as such a system can operate before generating its own cataclysmic destruction.
Rieff criticized the attempt by electric-age human elites to destroy “the rule of noncompossibility.” In today’s digital environment, emergence science impels us toward a life in which machines rule without any sense of why not to do what they happen to want to do. “Human persons are alive with possibility, both for good and for ill,” Novak writes. Machines, very much for ill, are surfeit with possibility, yet are not alive; they do not answer the fundamental market questions of Why produce? and Why consume? in the manner of living human beings. Yet absent the exercise of any sufficient limiting power, such as that of the state, they will continue to wrest control of the market away from the living.
The Return of the Obsolesced
In this way the digital revolution is retrieving politics at a site market liberalism had reserved for economics. To be sure, digital conditions are shaping human perceptions and behavior such that we increasingly model ourselves after our machines. But the digital environment is also retrieving a premodern, pre-print grasp of the significance of state power in the form of ruling law, however broadly distributed. Today it is state power alone, not market power or even cultural power, that might limit machines for the sake of human citizens or subjects.
To formalize their study of formal cause, Marshall and Eric McLuhan used the heuristic of a “tetrad” of media effects, intended as a complement to Aristotle’s four types of causation. Two of the general consequences of technologies or mediums, they observed, were “retrieval” and “obsolescence.” While the logic of science adopted by market liberals thoroughly embraced the notion of linear and progressive obsolescence (except for scientific logic and economic theory itself), the notion of a retrieval of once-obsolete forms was unthinkable. Yet the principles and structure of market liberalism are now showing significant decay. Gone—obsolesced—is the quintessential economic participant of the print and early electric age, the mature adult father carefully calculating and ranking market preferences to secure his interest as head of household. Here, in his place, is the typical consumer of the terminal electric age: the immature young daughter, her scattered and perhaps contradictory preferences shaped by a fire hose of social media content (i.e. terminal television), from which she and her peers are already disengaging. The replacement of homo economicus with puella economica reflects a desperate attempt by televisual industry professionals to find and lock in new consumers, new revenue streams, and a new pattern for their own agency and viability. Yet they cannot arrest the obsolescence of the social and psychological environment once formed by televisual technology.
What new economic practices and institutions will arise in a West where the medium, not the market, shapes us? We are about to find out. But in keeping with the retrieval of premodern, pre-print political forms, it is likely that where once a unitary globalized West once stood, a plurality of arrangements and entities, some doubtless more prevalent in the Old World than the New, will arise—and not emerge.
This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 2 (Summer 2019): 58–72.
2 Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, 112–13. Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (New York: Scribner, 2001), 11.
3 Thomas, 112.
4 Johnson, 235.