THR Web Features   /   August 10, 2022

A Fragile Future for Democracy

Responding to Eric B. Schnurer.

David Bosworth

( Capitol riots, January 6, 2021; Pacific Press Media Production Corp. / Alamy Stock Photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an edited version of remarks given at a recent Hedgehog Noontime Discussion featuring a conversation about Eric B. Schnurer's essay for the summer issue, “Democracy Disrupted: Governance in an Increasingly Virtual and Massively Distributed World.”

Watch a live recording of the event here.

In the scholarly world at least, we’ve known for sixty years how radically a new technology, especially a new communications technology, can impact a society. We’ve studied how it destabilized political economies in the past and undermined their commonsense conceptions of the world. That knowledge, however, has had no impact at all on the practices of our political economy where, as Eric B. Schnurer notes in “Democracy Disrupted,” technological innovation occurs at an ever-increasing pace, and where little thought is given to the potential negative consequences of its adoption. Where, in fact, such products are characteristically pitched with a utopian gloss. It is my belief that rapid technological “progress” will always threaten a culture with social regress, and that mitigating that threat should be a priority.

I first began to study this topic in the mid-nineties when the cultural conflicts that drew my attention were full of passion but muddled in confusion. The digital revolution, combined with the privatization of nearly every aspect of American life, was changing the pattern of everyday perceptions and social interactions, even as people still largely professed their allegiance to traditional American values. Two allied quotes from other transitional eras, 340 years apart, helped me understand the phase we were in back then.

The first is from René Descartes’s Discourse on Method, one of the foundational documents, for good and for ill, of modern reasoning: “In order to have real knowledge of [my countrymen's] opinions, I thought I must attend to what they practiced rather than what they preached; not only because, in the corruption of our manners, few will say what they really believe, but also because ... the mental act of believing a thing is different from the act of knowing that one believes it; and the one act often occurs without the other.”

The second is from Marshall McLuhan, who intuited very early on the likely impact of the computer revolution: “Everybody experiences far more than he understands,” he wrote in Understanding Media (1964), “Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

We’ve now moved into another phase, one which was already occurring in online sites, if invisible to establishment figures, and which burst into the public arena with Trump’s election and the passage of Brexit. Beliefs are catching up with experience, an illiberalism that no longer professes to believe in liberal modernity’s creed, a creed first established politically by the American Revolution, is fully out of the closet, and endorsed nominally at least by a majority of the Republican Party. Meanwhile, leaders in Hungary, Brazil and Turkey have been coopting democratic processes for authoritarian ends, and an ugly form of identarian politics has been surging throughout the Western world.

There’s no doubt the digital revolution has been one of the primary causes of these troubling developments. Schnurer’s essay insists, however, that the return to authoritarian rule is not inevitable, that democracy can survive, if in a very different guise in a fully digital world. His ideal goals—“a capitalist economy that honors nonmaterial values; a rationalist science that provides a sense of greater meaning to human life; a universalist ethos that nurtures a satisfying sense of identity; a liberal society that undergirds a communal culture; and a truly democratic and diverse polity that is actually still governable”—are clearly commendable ones. I agree with his insistence the younger generations need new “models to overcome the failures” in our current systems, and that the “least we can do” is to help them imagine those models.

But I do differ, temperamentally at least, with this assertion of his: “Those who will inherit this future are not frightened by the prospect of today’s political, economic, and social structures all collapsing.” Well, I am frightened of a systemic collapse, and think we all should be, especially on behalf of the next generation. Not because our current structures are themselves working well; in my last two books, The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America: The Moral Origins of the Great Recession and Conscientious Thinking: Making Sense in an Age of Idiot Savants, I tried to analyze in detail the history and nature their shortcomings. I’m frightened because even a cursory look at the historical record will show that when governing systems collapse, widespread violence tends to ensue. 

That certainly was true during the last major revolution in communications technology, print literacy, during the early to mid-seventeenth century, when sectarian and civil war erupted across the European continent, and revolutionary Protestants and reactionary Roman Catholics slaughtered each other with unrepentant zeal. The pacifying liberal system of governance that finally evolved, one that licensed but also disciplined the freedoms encouraged by widespread literacy—a conscience-bound Protestant religiosity, an entrepreneurial economy controlled by contractual law, and a democratic polity internally regulated by checks and balances—is the precisely the one now under assault. And that will need to adapt to the digital era or may, eventually, collapse.

All my ensuing questions and pleas for clarification from Schnurer are offered in that spirit, then: searching for a route to a future democratic governance that is adapted to our digital technologies but also disciplines their excesses, and that can be achieved via peaceful reformation rather than systemic collapse. My concerns, more generally, come in two forms. First, in some cases I find it hard to see how, practically and politically, we will get from here to there: from our current divisive circumstances, so adeptly described in Schnurer’s essay, to the attractive potential future governance he projects. This may be a failure of my own imagination, but I’d appreciate learning what I’m missing.

Second, as Schnurer aptly notes, new dominating technologies tend to reframe worldviews in their own terms, according to their own internal logic. He mentions the clockwork universe that emerged in Descartes’s era and that dominated Western thought and practice for centuries. And, of course, the ruling metaphor for our time has become digital, modeling the world and ourselves after our computational devices. But ruling metaphors are never sufficient to capture the whole complexity of both moral and material reality. The mechanization of life that followed from the clockwork universe, for example, often led to treating workers as machines, our factories “efficient” but the life of their laborers hellish. On this issue of ruling metaphors, I like to keep a warning by Robert Frost in mind:  

Unless you are at home in metaphor…you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe with science; you are not safe in history.

Are we riding the digital metaphor too far, to our own detriment? In this case, are we missing where it breaks down as an apt model for humane and democratic practice?

Here are five areas of concern and inquiry:

1.  Corporate Reformation. Schnurer recognizes that we “need a new corporate model embracing inclusion and respect for rights that would break the hold of the extractive and destructive tech model built by Facebook, Amazon, and the others.” (I think we need a new model for all corporations, not just big tech.) But he also predicts that nation-states will dissolve in the coming era under the pressures of digitalization. I wonder, then, how that new model will be established and enforced, by whom or what agency. Though national government in our era has been ineffective at regulating commerce, I find it hard to imagine how corporations will otherwise be constrained or reformed. As specialized collectives currently granted the rights of individual citizens but bearing few of the responsibilities, as very efficient money machines with no real conscience, corporations have no internal incentive to reform themselves.

2. The second topic is the plausibility and desirability of Schnurer’s projected alternative to authoritarian rule: his futuristic vision of a disaggregated, digitized, fractionalized democracy. As a reminder, let me stitch together some quotes of his: “In that fast-approaching future, anyone who chooses not to purchase various services will be able simply to press a button to ‘join’ a different “government.” “In this brave, new, world, where you can make your own realities and construct your own communities, you do not have to be part of anything with which you disagree. So why should you have to submit to the will of the majority? Soon, you will not: You will simply join a different community, culture, country, or .com (or different ones for different purposes), in which everyone shares your values and identity. This is not democracy or society as we have known them, but it would be highly democratic and social.”

I wonder, though. It’s a philosophical truism that, at a certain point, changes in degree become changes in category. This futuristic vision is certainly libertarian, but is it democratic? Satisfying and enduring democratic communities require strong social bonds, built over time through consensus and commitment, loyalty and, yes, obedience. The model proposed seems to me more like consumerism—citizenship converted to online shopping. Admittedly this is what our privatizing economy has been pushing for decades. But is this what people really want and need? If so, given the ever-increasing multiplication of products and services for sale over the years, why are they so unhappy now? In my view, it is the precisely the failure of consumerism to provide a meaningful life that has been instrumental in driving the large-scale, multifarious “identity crisis” we’re now suffering.   

3. Foreign affairs and a more global scale. Schnurer bundles Russia and China together, as outmoded forms of government, territorially acquisitive and over-invested in extractive economies, policies and practices the digital revolution is rendering obsolete in his view. But are they equivalent cases? I can agree that Putin’s Russia is more or less a kleptocracy, albeit one armed with nuclear weapons, and is overly dependent economically on the extraction of oil and gas, which doesn’t bode well for its long-term future. Although I’ve heard predictions for forty years that China’s authoritarian government will either collapse or be totally transformed, “naturally” liberalized by consumer capitalism and by our digital era’s inherent democratizing of information and communications, I see no signs of that yet. Given that particular nation-state’s scary competence in imposing a tech-driven control over its massive population—a surveillance state that puts 1984 to shame, shutting down cities with a population of millions during the pandemic, virtually imprisoning a million Uyghurs—I’d like to hear more about what Schnurer imagines China’s future to be. Will it, too, submit to these disaggregative forces? Or might there be, for a long time to come, a new kind of “cold war”: between nation-states who apply digital technology to authoritarian ends, and those to libertarian ends? And if so, how will these localized, disaggregated, and digitized polities in the West protect themselves from powerful nation-states that are still, archaically not, invested in the acquisition and control of territory and the extraction of material resources?

4. And how obsolete are the policies and practices of extraction and territoriality? Is this an instance of over-extending the digital metaphor? It seems to me that certain, necessary goods are territorially located and always will be. For example, food (think of the fertile ground in Ukraine that produces so much grain, now being held hostage by Russia). Or, too, drinkable water. And let’s not forget the very rare metals that are required for nearly all our high-tech devices. I have a hard time imagining that the desire to acquire and control the market for these goods, to horde them for profit and / or to enforce political concessions is going to disappear. The polar ice cap has been melting, a new territory ripe for extractive exploitation, and the opportunities there are already being pursued competitively by nation-states and large extractive corporations.

5. And that melting cap brings up the grievous problem of climate change. Of course, Schnurer is right that we’ve so far failed future generations on this topic, but the solutions to this complex crisis are necessarily global in nature, and so will require diplomacy on a global scale, including governing bodies capable not only of negotiating a settlement but also of supplying the necessary incentives and enforcing the necessary restrictions. Again, I have a hard time imagining how Schnurer’s vision of our fractionalized digital democracy of the future could be an effective political agent for change in addressing that crisis.

Those are my concerns, then. I want to emphasize, though, that I found Schnurer’s analysis of the disruptive forces now in play, compelling and convincing, and I’m much better informed for having read it. I’ve focused on his predictions for the future because those seem less clear to me and so less convincing. But predicting the future is always a hazardous venture, and I admit I could be very wrong. The Japanese have a saying, apropos of the human predicament, that I try to keep in mind whenever I begin prognosticating: One inch ahead, the whole world is dark.