Techno-Corporate Humanism: The Center in 2024

Image by fabio.

“The era of big government is over,” Bill Clinton announced in his 1996 State of the Union Address. “But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.” In these years a more conservative mindset took hold of the Democratic party in full force, a shift often associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. The idea was to take ideas from corporate boardrooms, MBA programs, and conservative think-tanks and advocate them on behalf of liberalism as “market-based solutions” to everything from how to solve poverty to how to run bureaucracies. By 2021 employees working for the federal government in a private capacity outnumbered public employees by 2.6 times.

It wasn’t just about pushing neoliberal economic policies such as signing on to NAFTA in 1992 or lowering the capital gains tax in 1997. The idea was that every part of society, economic or not, ought to be remade according to a market-driven model. Therein lies the gist of these reforms: to take ideas out of the business sector and make them popular in non-economic settings–to in a sense remake all of society in the corporate image. It wasn’t enough to facilitate corporate control of the entire economy through free trade agreements and structural adjustment abroad. Everything else needed to be remade in the same spirit at the same time, from how sports arenas are named, to how we stock rivers and lakes with fish, to how marginalized groups receive human services. This was a radical shift.

Techno-Corporate Humanism

This shift may have accelerated in the 90’s, but it didn’t start then. Historically it’s part of what Frankfurt School intellectuals Adorno and Horkheimer called instrumental rationality. When instrumental rationality sets the agenda in major institutions, Marcues’s “one dimensional society” results. Market values and quantitative rationality overrule all other considerations, be they ecological, ethical, democratic, religious, or cultural. This is our world of mass consumerism, inequality, technological innovation, militarism, and media spectacle.

When advanced technology and market values play an outsized role in everything from how we dress, have fun, think, teach, and make political decisions, then other ways of thinking have gotten pushed to the margins. The end result is techno-corporate humanism, which has a few identifiable features: it’s always in favor of advanced technology, it champions market-inspired solutions for nearly everything, and it claims to advocate a humanistic world that is diverse, rational, and democratic. The formula is something like this: technological “solutions” combined with market-based ideas equals a better world for all. In the techno-corporate mindset, technological development carries no inherent values or political thrust–it’s a simple objective process aimed at the betterment of humanity. But few economists, left or mainstream, would deny that the push to adopt ever advancing computer technology originates in the market need to constantly increase the output of human labor.

Granola in Soy Milk

Part of what distinguished the “New Left” of the 1960’s from the left of previous generations was a distrust of bureaucracy, technology, and industrialism. The Soviet Union looked less like a model for justice than a parallel version of capitalist societies, with ecological abuses, human rights horrors, and rigid bureaucracies. The anti-nuclear and environmental movements of the 1970’s furthered this sense that a techno-corporate society was an oppressive one. Somewhere between then and now things shifted. With the rise of the internet and with mainstream media focused on promoting the next new tech advance, the “back to nature” critique of the 1970’s began to look like so much granola in a bowl of soy milk.

Yet twenty-five years after the ascendance of the internet, the evidence of its damage to democracy lies everywhere. Local newspapers and journalism are close to dead, workers in the gig economy compete against each other for part-time work with no benefits, free speech is under surveillance, the workplace has become increasingly computerized and regimented, and in our spare time companies and bureaucracies pester us to create online accounts so that we can essentially perform work for them for free.

Despite all this, techno-corporate humanism holds hegemonic status in the political center and among liberals. It favors advanced technology, corporate expansion, neoliberal economics, bureaucratic growth, market logic, legal complexity, and mutually reinforcing consolidation of power between nearly all existing institutions. It speaks highly of human rights, liberal democracy, cultural diversity, and ecological sustainability, but effectively negates substantial progress in all these areas. It’s not as dangerous as right-wing populism, but in its embrace of free trade, austerity, and attacks on social welfare programs it has promoted inequality and helped undermine faith in government, planting seeds for far-right movements. Under Clinton, Obama, and Biden, we have continued moving toward ecological oblivion, racist stratification, corporate consolidation, warfare, managerialism, and technology worship.

It’s in the Workplace

Techno-corporate humanism goes beyond outsourcing government services at the Federal level. You can pull examples from everywhere–from higher education, mass media, art and literature, the non-profit sector, the corporate sector, healthcare, and even firefighting.

What follows are personal examples from the world of work–not critiques of social media or excessive screen time and other examples of tech consumption on the consumer end of things. Not enough attention gets paid on the left to how advanced technology shapes the workplace, changes the values at play, and often makes work simultaneously silly and miserable for people in government, education, and non-profits.

Higher education could be the poster child for techno-corporate humanism. There’s a common story about funding in the US over the last 30 years: state dollars for public universities have declined, so earnest administrators have had to become thrifty and figure out how to run colleges like businesses in order to make ends meet. This narrative breaks down quickly. Higher ed administrators are thrifty when it comes to trying to slash faculty and staff salaries and benefits or lay people off, but they’re eager to spend on all things techno-corporate: the proliferation of administrative bureaucracies, building new facilities, buying the newest software systems, advertising for more students, venturing into public/private partnerships that inevitably lose money, and so on. While they cite private fundraising as the key to making up for dwindling state resources, in truth it is steep tuition increases that have fueled their budgets, not fundraising heroics. Computerization, huge healthcare costs, and managerialism (i.e. techno-corporatism) have driven up costs disproportionately to declines in state funding. The cure is to spread more of the disease.

Academic departments like business and communications hire employees previously unheard of in academia, like fundraisers, PR personnel, and enrollment specialists (salespeople). Students are viewed as consumers and instructors as customer service specialists. Never mind that the number of college-bound high-school graduates each year is more or less a fixed number, making education anything but a “growth industry” or a market. Public universities can simply lower admission standards to lure in more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition. On the curricular end, online education is always a good way to water down the product and decrease costs, reducing complex learning processes to bullet point lists of “learning outcomes” that can be met in an online modality. Bureaucracy proliferates. Administrators spend most of their time on email or in meetings. They organize meetings where instructors are indoctrinated into the latest concerns around public safety, student retention, budget shortfalls, federal legal compliance, and technology. A fear of being sued rivaled only in healthcare drives an intense focus on compliance with federal legislation such as FERPA, the educational privacy act. This includes staffing compliance officers and lawyers and spending thousands of dollars on employee trainings and meetings. Little content at faculty-attended meetings involves academic topics or teaching methodology–as if the administration, lost in bureaucratic web, can’t contemplate the basic function of a university. Employee concerns are gathered and documented (especially if they’re critical!) but rarely implemented.

How about local politics? In Eugene, Oregon the liberal city council pushed even harder for middle housing zoning changes than did the Democratic super majority in Salem, the state capital. This movement exemplifies how positions such as fighting climate change, tackling racist housing disparities, and creating affordable shelter can be shamelessly harnessed for gentrification and the greenlighting of high-profit development. A local non-profit advocated the campaign to approve middle housing and the rezoning of single home lots for quadplexes, clusters of cottages, and townhomes. Its board of directors has had representation from a marketing agency, a realtor, and the local Chamber of Commerce. The city of Eugene pushed middle housing as a solution to both climate change and homelessness. But it’s hard to see how tearing down old apartment complexes and homes, often rented below market value, and building pricy high-rise apartments and quadplex rentals for out-of-state students makes ecological sense or helps the homeless or low income residents. The humanitarian and ecological rhetoric runs contrary to the results. The mutual interests of the city government, developers, and the local university all align around profits, the sustained growth of all involved organizations, and a higher tax base.

Non-profits aren’t immune. A few local non-profits recently merged to create a bigger non-profit, in the same way that corporations might merge to eliminate competition and reduce costs. A highly competitive applicant interviewed for a job but was turned away after it was discovered that they wanted to remain involved with another non-profit. While this might have seemed like a welcome scenario, this would have created a “conflict of interest,” the person was told. Presumably it would have threatened the “market share” of the recently consolidated organization.

At first glance, the healthcare business might not seem like a good example of techno-corporate growth outside of a business setting. But that’s the point: healthcare shouldn’t have become big business in the first place. All things techno-corporate proliferate: astronomical costs, increasing focus on computerization and high-tech diagnostic machinery, corporate consolidation, privatization of tasks like pharmaceutical trials that were once publicly administered, pharmaceutical advertising, and the interweaving of science and profit to the extent that many have begun to doubt claims about the effects of certain drugs and treatments. At some practices, primary care providers spend the entire visit filling out forms on a computer. All the costs, however, haven’t turned into better health outcomes. The Guardian cites a study that concludes that, “The US could have saved more than 338,000 lives and more than $105bn in healthcare costs in the Covid-19 pandemic with a universal healthcare system.” The cost of medical school is high, doctors are being replaced by less-educated primary care providers, and everyone seems miserable to be caught up like cogs in a giant money-making machine. Again, there’s a basic disconnect between the techno-corporate talk of efficiency and excellence and the real outcomes.

Something as seemingly unrelated to healthcare as wildland firefighting has experienced the same trends. The nation’s best-known historian of firefighting, Stephen Pyne of Arizona State, remarks in Between Two Fires that firefighting in the early 2000’s [and since] “resembled health care in that sparkling technologies, chimerical expectations, rocketing expenses, and a capacity for emergency medicine that was a marvel of the world boosted costs without a widespread improvement in national health.”

The “Progressive” Center

Since the early 90’s, centrists and liberals have advocated a techno-corporate society that marries corporate economics to liberal rhetoric. This has helped to create a political mainstream that is less obviously racist than a few decades ago. Even corporate America has jumped on board, with offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion more common than ten years ago. Nike has TV ads featuring Colin Kapernich. Coca Cola, JP Morgan Chase, and Delta Airlines, among others, have publicly opposed Georgia’s 2021 voting law on racial grounds. Shifts like this might be viewed as evidence that the center of American politics has shifted leftward. But another take is that left movements have had their rhetoric co-opted by mainstream institutions. Not long ago, activist organizations knocked on doors, marched in the streets, met face to face, and forged lifelong connections among members. Now much of this energy is directed into the online world and social media. Activist energy flares up in the virtual world but only occasionally spills over into the real world, such as in 2003 in opposition to the Iraq invasion or in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. Issues float across the internet, but an on the ground presence and sustained human connections are fleeting. Cultural activism in the technological sphere replaces activism that might have enduring political and economic effects.

Mainstream culture and language have become more humane in contrast to far-right culture. But a techno-corporate political center dressed in humanist rhetoric becomes a mask hiding endless war, environmental destruction, and a racially stratified world.