Since Jean-Jacques Rousseau first put forth the notion of a general will, philosophers and political theorists have labored to bring it to heel. Reactions have split between for and against. Critics, right up through the rise of totalitarianism, warned that Rousseau’s idea could do no more than encourage a tyranny of the majority or of the worst off. Supporters focused on Rousseau’s common-sensical description of the common good as the objective or outcome of unified people’s shared intent.
From today’s vantage point, probably the most pointed challenge to the general will came from Hegel, for whom Rousseau’s regime lacked certain features or preconditions necessary to its realization by the general will. Here the history of political thought becomes so complex that normal people can’t be bothered to plow through it in search of a resolution. But a few notes are crucial to understanding what regime form is currently arising around us against our will.
Fortunately Hegel’s immense efforts to depict human nature and history in a more complete and accurate way than both Rousseau and Kant do lead to a thought that people today can intuitively comprehend. Hegel holds that Rousseau’s general will is too theoretical and Kant’s categorical imperative too abstract to explain the history and nature of human regimes. The universal Idea at the heart of Hegel’s thought is a ground from which the figures of particular passions and interests thrust forth and clash in such a way as to always advance the emergence of the universal.
This dynamic Hegel describes—we’ll return to this—as “the cunning of reason.” But reason alone is not what advances human life or history according to Hegel. The key there is spirit. Once again, this territory is complex, but in short, Hegel expresses spirit through a certain kind of procedural language: what we do together and why gives rise to an objective world reality which works on us in a different but complementary way that universalizes our endeavors, motives, and identities. The good regime for Hegel is therefore a rational one structured and operated consistent with the objective world, populated with individuals who are not just moralistic in their conformity to proscribed ways but who embody and practice their ethical lives as a result of and though imitation and habituation.
The relationship between the unfolding universal Idea of the world and the practices of individuals who become increasingly conscious of what in this relationship ought to unfold is always already at work, inescapable by anyone, or—although at Hegel’s time this might sound like an absurdity—by the world itself.
But today we find ourselves in a situation where the gory details of the abstruse controversies among Rousseauians, Kantians, and Hegelians matters absurdly less than our building fear that “the world” is in fact slipping from the bonds of our relationship with it. For only now have we created technologies that can do things and unfold certain ideas or logics in which we appear to have no part or a vanishing part. The Hegelian wager, which in its broadest outlines has similarities with at least some other strains of thought, turns on the assessment that we shape our world in one way and our world shapes us in another—for example, we shape our digital machines according to some scheme of ours, and they, forming a sort of world of their own, shape us according to the psychological environment fostered by our enfolding within it.
Digital technology in itself does not quite call that complementarity into question. But the type of digital machines we have created and their massive scale and influence on us does pose, and should be seen to pose, a dramatic challenge to the main premise of modern political thought that we humans must take responsibility for our unfolding relationship with the world—a responsibility that arises through, and is accessible though, understanding it. The singularities we have achieved over the past few years technologically—a functional infinity of images and of digital entities or acts, a qualitative break in our relationship with machines caused by the deployment of entities the behaviors of which we cannot account for using causal science—throw into question how amid such a reconfiguration of our power and status a regime can be good or can persist at all.
Mass nihilism, fatalism, and mental breakdown is the result staring us in the face. The good regime must now somehow reanimate the spirit in a disenchanted multitude. It must move their personal and social parts in a way that hopefully they will take up and imitate and grow habituated to, developing a sense of rectitude along the way.
This anyway is what a leadership-class person steeped in modern or contemporary patterns of political thinking will reasonably conclude. And our leadership class is fully convinced that, today, this task is so severe and difficult that it can no longer be entrusted either to the people or to their human representatives. This is convenient, given that our leadership class does not want to be held responsible for the apparent fact that they are not up to the task they set forth for their own regime as the one thing needed above all. It is even more convenient given that they are placing their trust for deliverance into the hands of digital machines they have created, even though those machines have so far poorly lived up to their dreams and ideals, machines which they continue to use to wring profits from systems whose authority and economic vitality the machines themselves are draining away. Here is a new cunning of reason.
The wager of the leaders can be summed up in the central remark made by ex DARPA Artificial Intelligence head Paul Cohen at a recent National Academy of Sciences meeting: “the opportunity of AI is to help humans model and manage complex interacting systems.” The leadership class has conflicted for decades over how best to tackle the task of rule, but almost no leader has challenged the shared dogma that the world is now composed of systems too complicated and interpenetrated for any mode of control but management. In the absence of any control, the world, in their estimation, will fall apart, taking them down with it; yet the objective reality into which our digital machines is making us conscious is precisely one where mere human management will not suffice, and only, logic requires us to conclude, machine-centric management will.
Yet a regime is hardly simply the sum of its complex interacting systems, because today it is clear above all that regimes themselves are but one such system and do not exercise sovereign authority or control over all systems interacting wholly or in part within their territorial or non-territorial boundaries. How to reassert leadership control over the regime at a time when the regime includes global system problems but cannot exercise authority and control over the whole world is the central challenge faced by the leaders.
The logical thing for the leaders to do about this while having to shed as little of their own authority and power as possible is to refashion their modes of systems control as expressions of the general will. As the pressure of complex human and technological systems weakens the exercise of both citizen politics and bureaucratic management, leaders need a source of regime authority that appears to put those they manage into a position of higher honor than that of the machines used to control them. The multitude must be made to see itself as possessing a spirit of rectitude powerful enough to animate a historical overworking of both the legacy society and the legacy regime: only this will demonstrate how humans deserve honors far greater than even those due to the machines that will increasingly take over responsibility for making the new regime deliver on the promises of the new spirit of the multitude.
It is clear that the leaders today, including those with control over the sitting administration, see the unfolding woke religion as, more or less, the animating spirit of just such a process. But this is not very shocking. The next step that must be made is recognizing that the marriage of woke religion with the new technology of automated human system management is the only idea left in the box of the leaders because each needs the other to be viable at all in a digital age. It’s clear that the use of AI to give machines responsibility for the management of human systems will only be accepted by a multitude of faithful in a post-Christian (but not pre-Christian) religion. What must be made even more clear is that the woke faith cannot be even close to realized unless it is the established religion of the regime and it is established every day—every moment of every day—by digital machines that “liberate” us from the labor of citizenship, which is now seen as irredeemably tainted by the systemic dishonor and impurity of the legacy regime and the legacy society.
Put simply, social justice requires social credit, and social credit social justice. The leaders who seek to reassert their authority and control over the regime of today increasingly grasp that they can only do so by creating an automated social credit system to manage social justice the way our digital machines do all things—in real time, instant by instant, manipulating and adjusting inputs and outputs in a comprehensive and ubiquitous way no human or team of humans can ever do.
The demands of social justice, we already plainly see, go down to the microcosmic elements of every human interaction and human feeling; these micro-qualitative claims about harm and injury, purity and stain, debt and repayment, and relative status and wellness can only begin to be adjudicated in objective reality by a regime in possession of a world computer that can convert them into micro-quantitative analysis at massive scale with no interruption or rest. Only such a computer could know how to constantly adjust, accurately and on the fly, the social credit data of each member of the woke social justice/social credit regime. Only such a computer could keep the regime intact, and the multitude together. Can such a machine truly be built? The only way to know for sure is to wait until it is too late…
Before trying to figure out how best to proceed amid today’s whipsawing winds of transition, Americans need to admit and accept that the path laid out for us by our leadership class points straight in one direction, toward the digitization of the general will and the founding of a new regime where the woke faith is the established religion animating an automated social justice social credit system. In this regime, citizen politics is supplanted with a plebiscitarian form of expression of the generalized will as the automated social system incessantly counts the “votes” of each member in each instant, always in a way that ends up validating and reaffirming the decisions pre-made at the systemic level by the regime computer. This practice will be described as the perfection of participation and representation—a liberation of the human subject from the burdens of politics and philosophy as they were practiced in the unjust and impure old days. Without any robust alternative vision of political life in a digital age, dissidents and dissidents in the making will struggle to fight the founding of the new regime, or even to survive it.
James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.