Academia's Liberal Managerialism

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


May 9, 2014

Academia's Liberal Managerialism

The way that social scientists invoke the concept of moral panics as an explanation for the public’s alleged irrationality and fear of new technologies has always bothered me, but I never quite knew why. I instinctually rebeled against that analysis and haven’t really been able to articulate what I hate so much about it, but lately I’ve started putting the pieces together.

I knew that these academics sounded dismissive and prematurely invalidate what might be legitimate concerns about these technologies. But it dawned on me that some of these same academics actually advise the government about public policy. Framing the public as irrational isn’t just an unfair rhetorical move, it also justifies the paternalistic role that academics see themselves as playing in society.

The Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall is well known for his analysis of moral panics, but as a Marxist, his analysis is quite different from the way it is invoked by mainstream progressive-leaning American academics. Hall was concerned with how moral panics lead to demands that the police or government crack down on the ostensible cause, but viewed them as symptoms of deeper problems within capitalism. For Hall, the muggings panic in the early 1970s in the UK occurred during a severe economic crisis, and betrayed the public’s anxiety over unemployed black youth. In other words, behind the apparent irrationality of the moral panic lies a deeper logic, the fear of a very real threat to the social order.

But the American understanding of moral panics prefers psychological motivations over economic causes. In 2006, the Deleting Online Predators Act was proposed in the wake of public anxiety over online sexual predators. Media scholar Henry Jenkins offered his view of the true cause:

History shows us a recurring pattern surrounding the adaptation of any new communications technology. Young people are often early adopters: they are more open to new ideas and experiences; they are looking for ways to leave their mark on the world and they are seeking places where they can socially interact with minimal adult interference. Parents and teachers are often frightened by these new kinds of communication technologies which were not part of the world of their childhood: they don’t really understand what their young people are doing with them and they don’t know how to protect or supervise their children while they are engaged in these activities. The situation is thus ripe for moral panic.

A single high profile incident – some kind of tragedy or crime – can spark backlash. Political leaders, seeking headlines, and journalists, seeking readers, exploit those anxieties and feed those fears. Soon, there is a call to take action “even if it is wrong,” a call to action which races well ahead of any serious research or thoughtful reflection on the matters at hand. The new legislation is being embraced by politicians in both parties eager to woo cultural conservatives and suburban voters as they enter what everyone knows is going to be a hotly contested election.

Over time, as these technologies become better integrated into everyday life, as the generation which grew up with these technologies takes on adult responsibilities, things calm down again. People develop a more balanced perspective which sees both the benefits and risks associated with these activities. Rather than restrict access, we educate our young people in the safe, ethical, and creative use of these technologies.

For Jenkins, the primary problem is that the public is ignorant and irrational. He views the public’s influence as inappropriate and harmful, and believes that public policy should be guided by “serious research and thoughtful reflection”—which is to say by academics and experts like himself.

Jenkins isn’t wrong that the proposed legislation was largely supported by conservative politicians, or wrong for disagreeing with it. But his reasons for opposing it have troubling implications, suggesting that management of public policy is best left to experts and that the public will eventually just get used to whatever new communication technologies are imposed on them. Both imply a distrust of the public and an anti-democratic impulse.

The perverse irony is that for all of Jenkins claims to serious research and thoughtful reflection in contrast to the ignorant public, his analysis of the causes behind the DOPA bill is incredibly superficial, no more than a bunch of Sociology 101 banalities strung together. And the bill was conceived in Washington as a way for Republicans to limit some of the expected mid-term election losses, so it doesn’t even follow the pattern of a moral panic. Jenkins alludes to public irrationality to shore up his and his colleagues credibility as a trusted, credentialed expert and reserve the right to intervene in public policy.

It’s not that I’m in favor of legislation like DOPA. I have no issue with Jenkins’ opposition to it and no reason to defend the agenda of suburban Orange county conservatives for whom it was designed. At the same time, I think we should recognize that depending on an elite academic liberal technocracy to achieve political goals might be problematic.

Jenkins is just one person, but I do think his attitude is illustrative of a more general tendency among some progressives. The strategy is to appeal to elite institutions to come and save us from conservatives rather than articulating a political vision to the people and building a movement. There’s a history here. Fred Turner’s Democratic Surround documents the way that left-leaning academics feared the rise of fascism in the United States in the 1940s, so they developed and promoted the concept of the democratic personality as a way of innoculating the public against it. Here too, fascism was figured as a kind of ignorance and irrationality which required elite intervention and administration of social attitudes.

Online social justice activists use this strategy, probably because this form of activism originated on university campuses where the goal is to convince administrators to intervene somehow. It explains why online social justice activism is largely concerned with condemning rather than debating opponents, some even going so far as to claim that feminists shouldn’t be expected to explain to others what feminism is all about.

This is a form of activism that doesn’t engage because it implicitly addresses itself to elite academics, journalists, experts and their institutions and think tanks. Rather than building a movement and populist institutions that challenge their legitimacy, they offer elites legitimacy by representing oppressed people as victims to be rescued.