Big Data and the Human Person
Since at least the time of Antonio Gramsci—the early 20th-century Italian communist who scrawled out a plan in his Prison Notebooks to destroy the bourgeois West from the inside out—leftists have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to dismantling Western institutions, employing gender ideology and other iterations of cultural Marxism (which Gramsci helped invent) not just to transform universities, churches, and governments, but to upend even more basic institutions like marriage, family, and civil discourse.
Now, as a caravan of invaders—many of them gang members and human traffickers—attacks the southern border of the United States, liberals have taken to scolding President Trump for what they consider his heartless indifference to the plight of the poor. Government programs such as welfare and food stamps are held out as boons for the less fortunate who are seeking a better life in a land of plenty. But the Left hasn’t always been sanguine about institutional care for the poor.
In 1966, sociologists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven published a controversial essay in The Nation titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.” In it the authors formulated what came to be known as the “Cloward-Piven strategy,” according to which the massed weight of the impoverished would be used to overload the federal government’s burgeoning social safety net—which less-militant liberals had expanded exponentially under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative just a couple of years before—so as to “produce bureaucratic disruption in welfare agencies and fiscal disruption in local and state governments.” “The ultimate objective of this strategy,” they wrote, was “to wipe out poverty by establishing a guaranteed annual income.”
Sound familiar? Fifty years later, “guaranteed annual income” is being rebranded as a “federal jobs-guarantee program” by New York congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who made it a key promise in her recent House election campaign, and Senate lefties like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders. No doubt the strategy that instrumentalizes—and weaponizes—the poor is alive and well in the Democratic Party today.
To be sure, the Left should hardly be made to shoulder all of the blame for our collectivist mindset. For decades Republicans have speechified border security while cutting backroom deals to keep big business in cheap migrant labor (and fat corporate profit margins). Just as Democrats need immigrants to vote Democrat, Republicans need immigrants to get CEOs to support Republicans.
This history of exploitation raises a lot of questions, but one in particular stands out: Where is the individual in all this talk of institutions and government largesse? For all the media coverage of the latest caravan, for example, it is hard to escape the observation that we do not know any of the travelers’ names. They are referred to in collective terms—mothers, children, victims, the poor—but never considered as individual people, each with a very different reason—some good, some malicious—for illegally entering Mexico and then illegally attempting to enter the United States.
Such caravans are undoubtedly a threat to the rule of law and also to our existence as a sovereign nation-state. But at the same time they present an opportunity to take a step back and ask ourselves how we tend to think about the human person in American society.
Republicans and Democrats both garner support from American Catholics, whose church teaches that subsidiarity must be a foundation of social policy. According to subsidiarity, decisions about social issues must be made at the administrative level closest to where those decisions will have the greatest effect. Wherever possible, local communities should decide for themselves what is best. Higher-up offices and agencies should defer to the insights and wisdom of those more familiar with the situation “on the ground.”
Taken from any angle, however, what we have in the United States’ political system is hardly subsidiarity. When it comes to immigration, it is subsidized human trafficking at best.
And now, with the rise of Big Data, our collectivist way of thinking is only bound to deepen. In a recent speech, Apple CEO Tim Cook warned that Big Data was being “weaponized” to form a “data industrial complex” in which private data is harvested and then used to override privacy, turning our own information against us.
But let us ask another, more uncomfortable question: How much of this weaponization is a function of democracy itself? For in a democracy, we tend to obsess over polls and election results, with a bare majority, sometimes just a few hundred votes, being enough to push one candidate to victory over another. Anglo-Irish philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke taught that the “little platoons” of society should be the objects of our civic affection. We should order our fondness and attachments so that we love best those who are nearest us—a subsidiarity of regard for our fellow men and women, with particular devotion to our family and close friends.
In a democracy, however, we should not be surprised to find that institutions have taken the place of Burke’s little platoons. Democracy drags us into politics while eroding with atomistic ideology the communities that hold a political arrangement together. We become politically-obsessed vagabonds, ignorant of our hometowns but easily whipped into a frenzy over what happens in Washington, DC. As more issues get piled on the national plate, the stakes of elections become higher and higher; we tend to “engage up” to bigger and bigger institutions, until eventually we are warring over who will control the various apparatuses of the federal Leviathan.
To drive this point home, let us admit that even if every member of the latest caravan were to settle here most would probably not assimilate. There are no more little platoons to absorb new arrivals. More than one-fifth of people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home. That figure climbs to near fifty percent in America’s five largest cities. Beyond that, what should we expect immigrants to assimilate to? In a country that largely mocks its own past, dismisses the moral code inherited from its forefathers, and promotes an infinite fission into mutually-exclusive identity camps, is it any wonder that people who come here from abroad find it difficult to fit in? Fit in where?
The only thing we Americans really have in common anymore are the federal institutions of Social Security, Medicare, and martial law. We huddle in anonymous “nations” and “communities”—the “BDSM community,” “the Steeler Nation”—and yet still cannot understand why Big Data is swallowing us whole. We are tracked at airports and at gas stations, tracked online and while driving in our cars. Computers learn what we like and then give us more of what we crave when responding to advertisements already designed to appeal to our basest desires. We lose ourselves in oceans of data and feel strangely uneasy whenever we have to go a few minutes without looking at our phones. Algorithms erase our will while mass consumerism blankets our individuality.
All of this parallels the concessions we make to the gigantic institutions that corral us through our day and promise to protect us in our vulnerability. We have uploaded our lives to Facebook and Google, and then delivered our minds over to Netflix and Amazon to distract us from the vertigo of surrender to giant forces beyond our control. But who are we without all of this? Who am I when I strip away Big Data, big government, big corporations, and the latest big idea?
Let us remember this as we watch the drama on the Rio Grande: a nameless and stateless mass approaches, and a much bigger nameless and stateless mass looks on with a gnawing sense of familiarity. We are all in a caravan now, crammed awkwardly into the dehumanizing matrix of institutions for their own sake, institutions as surrogates for the vibrant life of free individual association that we once enjoyed.