Guest poster: Matt Stannard

Published in 1964, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society by Herbert Marcuse examines and criticizes both the communist and capitalist empires of the time — the United States and the Soviet Union — to examine how ruling classes create false needs, mediate public deliberation, and absorb dissent. The simple explanation for how advanced industrial societies do the latter is that they recast it as loyal opposition, watering down the revolutionary or structural implications of social criticism and creating manageable reforms which, by owing their creation to the original criticisms, appear to be fulfillments of them. But besides just re-narrating dissent as loving criticism, liberal societies also create networks that integrate subversive, anti-hierarchical ideas into existing systems. 

The capitalist “West” did this better than the Stalinist “East”. Critiques of the wage system manifested small wage hikes and minor worker protections. Critiques of militarism and colonialism resulted in greater integration of and empowerment of certain groups within the military ranks, and PR campaigns about benevolent soldiers or cops. Critiques of patriarchy birthed campaigns to bring more women into the executive class. 

This continues today and, in many ways, LinkedIn — the business-oriented social network started in 2003 by Reid Hoffman — is a living example of Marcuse’s “absorbent liberalism” (my term, not Marcuse’s), by which I mean the most noble and healthy liberal ideas are unapologetically cast as elements in entrepreneurial capitalism. In fact, one thing LinkedIn does particularly well is integrate all the sectors we have long believed to be exclusive of one another: the public and private sector, academia and the non-academic “real world,” technological and intellectual labor. Everyone can create a professional profile on LinkedIn and sell themselves, even full-time anti-systemic activists. Surrounding it all, like a mesh WiFi network, is the framework of contemporary capitalism, which earnestly needs all of it: the poets and the plows, the intellectuals and the electricians, the rebels and the human resource managers. 

“Help make LinkedIn more inclusive,” reads a recent demographic questionnaire sent via email. As I read through and answered the questions — my race, my age, my sexual orientation and gender identity — it occurred to me that a huge portion of the ownership, entrepreneurial, and managerial classes would probably find these questions mildly irritating or politically offensive. At any given time, it seems like 30-ish to 40-ish percent of surveyed Americans preferred the anti-woke politics of Donald Trump, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, while a smaller portion (but not insignificant; we’re talking business owners and cops and such) are even comfortable with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson. To whom is LinkedIn directed? 

One answer may be that members of the professional class, from upper-level managers to corporate attorneys, may have accepted and integrated themselves into the techno-liberalism of the LinkedIn crowd even while spouting or silently assenting to reactionary politics outside of their work life. This is economics massaging politics, which is the function of the inclusive liberal state. And networking, like the collection of data on constituencies and clients, is an apolitical need.

What is clear is that LinkedIn is a self-consciously absorbative project. A 2015 New Yorker profile of Hoffman ties his techno-non-topianism to earlier sociological and economic templates of “Man.” Hoffman believes “we can fix the problem [of inequality] through Internet-enabled networks. Work is already becoming more temporary, sporadic, and informal, and this change should be embraced. Many more people will become entrepreneurial, if not entrepreneurs. The keeper of your career will be not your employer but your personal network—so you’d better put a lot of effort into making it as extensive and as vital as possible.” The article calls Hoffman a “twenty-first-century version of William H. Whyte’s . . . 1956 book ‘The Organization Man'” but the same template, that sociological profile of types of “men,” sparked the title of Marcuse’s treatise a decade later: One-Dimensional Man, herald of comprehensive social engineering that functions to keep power structures in place, to shape-shift the closures of society rather than open spaces for genuine human emancipation. 

Thus, we note the presence of LinkedIn Learning management classes emphasizing skills and competencies along with the development of leadership attitudes and attributes. The concept of “leadership” must remain deliberately fluid and feel nonhierarchical and non-dominionist. First-time managers are told that to transition into leadership, you need to “become a better listener, and connect to your employees emotionally.” 

But LinkedIn also incorporates critiques of managerialism, and even of neoliberalism. Take the writing of Michael Judd, a healthcare administrator interested in alternative models of leadership and organization in support of collaborative models of health care, writing about them on LinkedIn. In one of his essays, Judd navigates the awkward terrain between professionalism and revolutionary critique. This pragmatic reality supposes that educated workers, even managers, may learn from and incorporate alternatives into business structures reliant on the old order. Judd transitions from a concluding paragraph on neoliberal, neo-colonial exploitation of labor to calls for understanding diversity in the workplace. For him, neoliberalism’s threat to diversity is in the streamlining that happens when all production, and even all intellectual discourse, is reduced to production for profit. Ultimately Judd hopes that our drive to be social beings will counter the alienating effects of neoliberal capitalism. It’s not a communist vision he puts forward as his utopia, but a liberal one: “the right to question authority and the laws that govern our society. It is the right to equality, justice and liberty for all, regardless of race, class, gender, age, disability, diagnosis, or any other stratifying label.”  

And you can’t blame smart, well-meaning people from this manner of incorporation and cooptation, and it may be more useful to look for ways that thinking, compassionate humans can incorporate emancipatory critique in their everyday lives (than critiquing the whole system like some kind of monolith). Liberalism, the pragmatic argument goes, may be the best we can do, and rejecting it may invite authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism before egalitarian revolution. Better to build inclusive markets than invite exclusionary violence. 

It’s a persuasive argument, and it will work until it stops working, which some argue it already has. 

This post was sponsored by my client Accurate Append, which provides high quality data and email append services to support organizations, empower campaigns and connect businesses with their customers.