The Internet as Mob Rule

The ancient Greeks believed political constitutions repeated in a pattern called kyklos (“cycle). The idea first occurs in Plato’s Republic, gets elaborated by Aristotle in his Politics, then reaches its apogee in Polybius’ Histories.  

Unlike modern theorists of cyclical rise and fall of civilisations, such as Oswald Spengler, the kyklos doesn’t have a zenith or golden age. It’s rather a waxing and waning of stable society types, followed by unstable society types. What characterises a stable society is that the ruling class and citizens both strive towards the common good, conceived as the objective purpose of human beings, which results in their happiness and flourishing. Society becomes unstable when its members stop having the common good in mind, and instead strive after their selfish private interests to the detriment of other citizens. 

Kyklos then presupposes several things. First, it isn’t culture specific. Its objectivist outlook means it applies equally to all political human groups, always and everywhere. Second, the engine that drives history is human virtue and vice, and not economics, class struggle, or war. These are secondary factors resulting from the characters of human beings. Healthy economies, contented class structures, well-won peace and just wars all result from virtuous people. Third, the stable government types are various. Kyklos defends neither monarchy, nor aristocracy nor a republic exclusively. It isn’t a Whiggish or utopian theory of history, that says if and only if a certain group are in power all will be well. Rather it claims that whatever group are in power, they must be virtuous to rule well. Vice immediately leads to disorder.

Simplifying in the extreme, the kyklos model runs as follows. Rule can be by one person, several, or many. When these rule for the common good, they are just, and are called monarchy, aristocracy and republican respectively. When they rule for their private interest to the detriment of society, they are tyranny, oligarchy and democratic respectively.    

It’s important to note that by “democracy” I don’t mean here a system of popular representation or voting. The virtuous form of this is called a polity or republic in classical thinking. In the latter, bonds of authority and specialised expertise remain. In the former, absolutely everything is sacrificed for the sake of equality of the masses (see below).

A good monarch rules with benevolence. His successors are unjust and become tyrants. The nobility removes them, creating an aristocratic state. These in turn degenerate into oligarchs as they grow decadent and self-interested and begin to oppress the poor. The people rise up and remove them, creating a republic where all citizens have a say. But the mass of citizens loses the bonds of political friendship, grows selfish, and the republic becomes a democracy. Democracy eventually deteriorates to a point where all bonds between people are gone, and we have a mob rule. The mob annihilates itself through infighting. One virtuous man seizes power, and we return to monarchy. The cycle begins anew.

With these preliminaries out of the way, I come to my point. I believe the present age we are forced to live through is highly ochlocratic. Of course, it’s not a pure mob rule since we have non-mob elites and a rule of law. I also think our age is oligarchic (dominated by elites swollen with pleasure). But it’s more ochlocratic, I contend, than it was a few centuries ago, and enough that mob behaviour characterises it.

The defining trait of unstable regimes, as I’ve just said, is vice. However, vice doesn’t just happen spontaneously as though people awake one morning deciding to be selfish, spoilt, and cruel. Evil people, as Aristotle notes, often believe they are good. Their fault is that they’ve mistaken something which is bad for what is good. For example, the man who hates the poor falsely believes money is the same as goodness. The man who mocks monks and sages for their abstinence believes all and only pleasure is good. Even when we know what is good for us, ingrained habit or upbringing might make the illusion of goodness overpowering. A lifetime of cake-gorging can condition one to the point it overrides the knowledge that sugar is bad for health.

            I think the Spanish thinker Jose Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) unwittingly echoes Plato when he points to the faults of the democratic “mass-man” of the twentieth century. All human societies need specialised minorities to function. The more demanding and specialised a field, the more those who do it will be a minority of the population. Further, all societies, to function, need sources of authority which aren’t decided by a majority vote. Modern democracy has created the illusion that the unspecialised mass is sovereign and has no reliance on anybody. It has achieved this mirage through artificial liberation: creating unnatural freedoms through constant government intervention and technocratic engineering.

This in turn has supported vices out of unthinking habit. The mass-man accepts his lack of qualifications and is proud of this absence. He isn’t one deluded about his knowledge. Quite the opposite. The mass-man is someone who openly declares he knows nothing but demands to be listened to anyway because he’s a member of the sacred demos. In short, according to Ortega y Gasset, the ideology of the mass-man is: “I’m ordinary and ignorant, and so I have more of a say than those who are specialised and learned.”

The internet is a democratic medium par excellence. This isn’t to say that its members are all egalitarian and individualist, rather, its very construction assumes egalitarian and individualist ideas, and these force themselves onto its users whether they be willing or not.

Here we can extend the criticisms that Neil Postman makes at television in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) to the web. On the internet, all information is available to everyone. Anyone can create it, and anyone can opine on it. The medium doesn’t distinguish for quality, so the greatest products of human civilisation sit alongside the basest, on the same shelf. There are no filters online for expertise or experience, indeed, any attempts to create such filters are decried as “gatekeeping”. As a result, the internet has no difficulty settings (to use a metaphor). Getting through the easier levels isn’t mandatory to reach the harder ones. You can skip ahead, so to speak, and mingle with the pros as their peer.

Someone might object here that I’m exaggerating, since online communities monitor themselves all the time. I can indeed post my amateur opinions onto an internet space for astrophysicists, but these will mock and exclude me once I become a nuisance. However, this isn’t an answer. The internet is built on the assumption of mass wisdom, and the only way to enforce hierarchies of value on it is by banding a mob together. The space around remains anarchic. Yes, there are communities of wise people online, but these exist in an ocean of communities of fools. The medium presents them all as equally valuable. Which communities grow powerful still depends on the wishes of the mass. 

When the internet produces a rare fruit of quality, this is because by sheer accident, the wishes of the mass have corresponded to reality. It isn’t an in-built feature.

The result is that the internet functions like a classic mob regimen or ochlocracy. The medium has no sensitivity to quality, but rather responds to will, provided enough people are behind it. Those who wield influence online do so because the mob will has selected them. They are our modern versions of Plato’s Athenian demagogues, or rabble-rousers of the French Revolution. A mass of ignorant and desperate people swirls around equally ignorant and desperate demagogues who promise them whatever they want. Demagogues rise and fall as the mob is first enamoured then bored of them. As the internet has grown to encompass our whole lives, this ochlocracy has spilt out into the real world.

In this space, truth entirely drops out. It’s a common fault of the ignorant to confuse desire with truth since desires are often hotly felt and what is very vivid seems real. Our egalitarian internet machine therefore is wont to magnify desires rather than realities. And because it magnifies desires, these ever more get confused with reality, until mob wishes would replace the common good of society. I believe a good example of this is how the online demagogue-mob relationship works. When internet personalities, especially political and social influencers, fall from grace, it’s usually because their followers realise they can no longer get what they want out of them (seldom do demagogue and mob cordially separate because each has become wiser). The power lies with the followers and not with their purported leader.

Which brings me back to kyklos. A classic Greek political cycle resets when a virtuous individual takes the reigns from the mob and establishes a monarchy. He recreates justice through his personal goodness. This was more likely, I think, in ancient societies where religion, community and family were stronger, and so the pool of virtuous people never entirely depleted. If our ochlocratic internet is indeed a stage in a kyklos (or a component of an ochlocratic stage), and it ends, I think it will end with one demagogic idiocy imposing itself on the others by force.

A population conditioned by the internet to think mass-appeal as equivalent to truth will readily accept a technocratic whip provided it claims to issue from the general will. Which idiocy gains supremacy is a matter of which can capture the greater part of the mass in the least time, to form a generation in its own image. This is why I don’t think the current trend of the internet becoming more regulated and censored is good. The regulators and censors come from the same debased crop as those they regulate and censor.

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