Critique of Interview with Jaron Lanier

From an interview with Jaron Lanier 5/12/13 in Salon, “The Internet Destroyed the Middle Class”

“We kind of made a bargain, a social contract, in the 20th century that even if jobs were pleasant people could still get paid for them. Because otherwise we would have had a massive unemployment. And so to my mind, the right question to ask is, why are we abandoning that bargain that worked so well?” (Lanier, from the Interview)

Lanier is not using the term as it is used in political theory.  While there are a few notable 20th century examples (i.e. Rawls), social contract theory had its heyday in the 18th century when democratic uprisings were toppling monarchies. Though classic social contract theory comes in many flavors (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau) the basic premise is that in a mythical state of nature, men (this is the 18th cent) gave up their liberty to enter into a government, and that if the government abused that compact, citizens could revolt to recover their “natural rights”.

My favorite critique of this comes from Jeremy Bentham, who says that rights are in no way natural; they are “legal fictions”, and men entered into government not because they had rights, but because they had none. You can already see we’re a ways away from Lanier. He’s trying to discuss politics without discussing a notion of rights, and what I think his “social contract” is really describing is a kind of mythical super-union that existed in the 20th cent (as described in the quote above). That people we’re given jobs even though the jobs were pleasant (because of a social compact) is a bit too ludicrous for me. In reality, a 20th cent person negotiated an increasing division of labor, involving many tradeoffs, one of which was the option of taking a more pleasant job for less money. That Kodak employed 140,000 people at one time is not because of some nationalistic socialist agenda to employ everyone; employing that many people was just good for business. The only thing approximating Lanier’s notion is Modern Monetary Theory’s assertion that taxation is a policy tool used to regulate inflation and unemployment, and isn’t a means of funding the government per se. I am sympathetic to Lanier’s criticisms of libertarianism, but I also don’t think the solution is a bygone era of nationalism.

Though flawed, perhaps Lanier’s notion will gain currency; classical social contract theory, though philosophically flawed, fueled the political rhetoric that transitioned states from monarchies to liberal democracies. I think Lanier’s critique is just one of many examples of the internet asserting a kind of independent sovereignty. Other examples include the original declaration of the freedom of cyberspace and the SOPA blackout. In line with Lanier, I don’t know that this new sovereignty will necessarily be democratic.

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