Politics, and how to engage in it, is always in a state of flux and motion. Sometimes politics progresses and takes on a new evolution of ideas and goals, and sometimes it regresses when questions once thought settled rear their head yet again. Oftentimes the central political questions change with the evolution of the political scene. The United States and its political processes are in the midst of such an evolution. The change from the nation-state to the market-state and the concurrent privileging of economics as the core of politics has shifted the meaning and goals of the state and thus politics itself. Put simply, the market-state privileges economic opportunity over the welfare and protection of its citizens as the nation-state once had. Hannah Arendt in her seminal work The Human Condition also foresaw this evolution with the rise of the social and sidelining of the political/public realm and the rise of the economic/private. Amongst this backdrop has been a rapid technological revolution that has fundamentally altered what could be considered the public square. The advent of the internet has made information, communication, and connection across boundaries much easier, while simultaneously making individuals increasingly lonely and withdrawn into the digital world through things like social media, gaming platforms like Fortnite where people can interact in a singular online platform, or online life simulations like Meta’s looming Metaverse or VRChat. Increasingly, communication, entertainment, and being-itself is encapsulated in a digital space and provided by large corporate oligarchies like Apple, Meta, Google, and others. The result is an altered public square that now exists digitally and thus demands a rethinking of our political and ethical principles and a theological rethinking of how to live out the Christian call to love God and neighbor. This essay will attempt to get the ball rolling, so to speak, by using the works of Hannah Arendt, Adriana Cavarero, and Shoshana Zuboff to argue that this altered public square: 1) portends a further stripping of political power from those without capital, 2) emerges into a new oligarchy and capitalist ethos in Surveillance Capitalism, and 3) that the most ethical path forward is found in the role of promise and forgiveness in our individual lives by concentrating on building relationships across boundaries and caring for one another in our lives and in the digital space.
The setup of this essay is relatively simple. First, I will use Arendt’s discussion about the public and private realm and the rise of the social in The Human Condition to situate the devolution of politics to that of purely economic/capital concern. Using Shoshana Zuboff’s work The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism I will connect this privileging of the economic to the new capital frontier of the digital space in which identifying data taken from an individual’s use of the internet/digital sphere is bought and sold to form profiles of consumers. This can then be used to create targeted marketing that allows powerful corporate entities, modern oligarchs, and others to attempt to shape and mold individuals and their behavior to their own benefit. Put simply, the digital space both frees us from our territorial boundaries while simultaneously trapping us to the whims of an oligarchy consumed by its thirst for more capital. Finally using Arendt and Cavarero, I will attempt to construct grounds for a hopeful and ethical path forward grounded in the love of God and neighbor by using the logic of the digital space itself for solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized and a freer public square that leads to a flourishing of all.
The Fall of Rome or The Collapse of Politics as We Know It
Arendt uses the Greek idea of the polis as the starting point of her analysis of politics. In the polis there were two realms that dominated Greek life: the private and the public. The private realm was the realm concerned with economics because it was simultaneously the realm that focused on meeting basic needs and was the realm of strictest inequality. The private was the fount of inequality because it was where the basic human needs of food, shelter, and any other basic need was met. Freedom required conquering these necessities of life. The polis on the other hand was a place of equality where all participants were viewed as equals and the voices of the participants heard, a place of no rulers and no ruling. In essence, for Arendt, this was the distinction between the economic (private) and the political (public) concerns.
The public/private dichotomy in the polis makes sense for conceptual reasons to understand Arendt’s distinction between the political and economic. For Arendt the economic marked a place of inequality and rulership that existed to meet one’s basic needs. It was only through conquering their needs that one could be truly free enough to engage in politics. In modern times the political and economic are intrinsically linked. Politicians and candidates get elected on promises to create jobs, increase wages, bring down costs of living, or any other number of economic platform issues. Regardless, if they do or do not have the power to achieve such goals or whether they achieve them or not, they provide a sense of credibility to a campaign that says it cares about kitchen table issues. Arendt identifies this mixing of the public and the private as the social realm. The social realm is essentially public housekeeping. In the private realm of the polis, it was the job of the head of the household to make sure needs were met for all members of the household. In the social, it is the job of society to make sure that the needs of society are met. This fundamentally alters the meaning of politics and economics from the age of the polis.
The emergence of the social brings with it four major changes that are causes for concern: 1) It decenters political questions that are necessary to address lingering foundational issues in the economy, 2) It alters how we value things by prioritizing utility and capital creation over the good of something in and of itself, 3) it promotes inequality and violence as acceptable forms of persuasion, and perhaps most importantly for the digital question, 4) It promotes political and economic conditioning to serve its own interests. The result is a politics that is not political, an economic system removed from its own foundational principles and values, and increasingly little to no influence on the direction of the economy or society by those living within it and struggling to make ends meet. Politics has become economics and the results are not pretty.
The first change of the social is that economics becomes the primary political concern. Much like how the market state privileges economic opportunity over the welfare of its citizens, the social realm centers economics as the chief political concern. In some ways this makes sense because many people are living paycheck to paycheck or worse, struggling to get by. Helping people out of poverty and alleviating suffering should be a concern of any society. The problem is that economic systems rely on answers to fundamental political questions. Milton Friedman in his work Capitalism and Freedom realized this truth. His thesis is that capitalism is most compatible with democratic systems because democratic systems prioritize individual freedom and choice. It is freedom that powers a healthy capitalism. One can agree or disagree with that argument, but the point remains that questions of political organization, principles, and values will directly impact the type of economic system that forms. With the prioritizing of economic concern at the center of politics, we render ourselves increasingly unable to address problems within the prevailing economic system or make changes because we do not ask the foundational questions of principles and values that undergird them. Alternatively, if we do answer such questions, the social political system is not equipped to address them. Since the 1980s, citizens in the United States and various political candidates have questioned the wisdom of increased privatization of public goods, the outsourcing via government contracts to private companies to provide goods and services, and for lack of a better term, the capitalization of social/public goods. Yet it has largely continued unabated, and the market -state is the logical conclusion of such a program where people are known more by their consumption patterns than their citizenry or national identity. One’s welfare is of less concern than the opportunity for consumers to consume. Is this solely because of corruption within the government? That is certainly part of it, but since the political system we have is so focused on providing for immediate economic concerns, they do not address long-standing and foundational political issues. This is ultimately the problem with the social realm: it limits our vision of what is and curbs our ability to make necessary changes.
The second change of the social is that it alters how one values things. Instead of something being worthwhile because of its innate value it is valued only in terms of utility or ability to create more capital. This has been seen in some ways in the devaluation of the arts in contemporary times. The third change of the social is that it enshrines violence as a form of persuasion because it resulted from the inequal and violent aptitudes that were acceptable in the private realm. In the private realm of the polis, inequality was rampant. There was one head of the household who did what was necessary to meet the basic needs of the household. Likewise in the socially elected leadership and those who own large shares of private capital, have outsized influence on the day to day lives of citizens of countries due to their ability to shape the economy. The fourth change of the social is that it encourages conditioning by requiring all members of a society to act in certain ways and follow predetermined paths that are best for society. Put in the terms of the polis, the social is essentially a large nation-state in which those with outsized influence and money can set the rules of the game and the citizens are expected to follow them.
So what does this rise of the social have to do with digital ethics and the emerging public square in the digital space? They all have an impact on how people engage in the digital sphere yet there are some that have more outsized influence than others. With Zuboff’s argument for the emergence of surveillance capitalism, it becomes clear that the conditioning of others and selling of accrued data for profit is the new frontier for capital creation, acting as foreground for any effective challenge to the emergence of economics over politics.
Watching the Watchers
The advent of the internet, and the digital ecosphere that comes with it, is profoundly paradoxical. It simultaneously promises connectedness across social, cultural, and territorial boundaries while also seemingly isolating us. It allows a vast transfer of knowledge and information once locked behind access to libraries or schools, and while widely available, how much of this information is truly helpful? How much of it is instead junk data?
These are complicated issues that have no easy solution. The technological revolution, as Phillip Bobbit points out, is both profoundly helpful while foundationally challenges our long-held assumptions. How we conceive of our role in society, how we engage with others, what the role of the state is, and other issues come to the forefront. The emergence of the market-state has exacerbated these issues in many ways. This section will look at how the digital ecosphere like the internet, smartphones, smart homes, AI systems, and other technologies both promises to alleviate problems while also posing significant risks to our personhood in the new capital frontier that is the digital information highway. It will argue that our only path forward is to challenge the corporate oligarchies that profit off our interconnectedness, condition us to follow certain behavior patterns, and ultimately, divide us for profit.
Shoshana Zuboff recognizes this fundamental change in the nature of the digital space and terms it surveillance capitalism: “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.” This data used to be collected to gather information about the consumer — like consumption patterns for companies to better understand what goods they were interested in — but now “…the goal is to automate us.” This tracks with the warnings that Arendt sounded about the devolution of the political and the emergence of the social. Instead of providing information or getting information to better tailor goods and services, companies now attempt to mold you into a consumer that they can benefit from. This change does not stay simply in the corridors of business and profit but also into the emerging political public square, like Facebook, Twitter, and others.
Facebook was originally pitched as a way to stay in contact with friends on college campuses that you may not see on a day-to-day basis. Eventually it expanded into keeping in contact with friends who have moved. Facebook proved helpful in this regard. Twitter was a place for news and for putting your opinions out into the digital world. However, over time, both platforms realized that they could collect data about you to better tailor their services to you and then condition you to rely on them for your daily interaction needs. In this respect, Facebook and Twitter attempt to be a sort of digital home.
Zuboff argues however, that home as a concept and a place, one where people can be known and are safe is slowly being stripped away in the digital age. Home provides a place where people can experience safety, freedom, or a place where we can experience love with our families in whatever forms those take. Instead, Facebook and Twitter have been politicized and used as weapons of both disinformation and relentless, vicious attacks on anyone who is different from the user. As a result, social media cannot be considered home in the traditional sense. As generations increasingly move into the digital sphere and social media platforms for news, connection, and even “home,” it is simultaneously becoming increasingly vicious, partisan, dehumanizing, and ultimately harmful to both its users and the body politic.
Intellectuals and scholars have long asked about this trend. Why do so many people go on social media only to argue or name-call one another? Instead of discussion or even healthy debate of the issues, why are we instead so quick to dismiss concerns or criticisms as inherently evil responses? Here both Arendt and Zuboff provide the key: the information collected and weaponized by companies has now become tools for political parties to divide for their benefit. Where companies use the information to condition you to rely on their products to generate continual revenue, politicians and political parties use the information highway to sow discord and division so that you’ll vote for them and not the other evil, traitorous, fascist, social-justice warrior, communist snowflake, or some other partisan insult. This division does not help anyone but those already in power to hold onto their power. We have fallen into this trap as people increasingly turn to social media platforms for affirmation and feelings of connectedness and belonging, but the result is increasingly a polarized society that cannot stand one another. Instead of holding those in power to account for their failures, mistakes, and harm they’ve committed, we instead blame each other as if one singular vote has ever turned the tide of an election. We often forgo the opportunity for empathy for one another or try to understand why someone votes the way they do and instead ascribe ulterior and evil motives to that decision. It is my argument that we do this because the digital ecosphere that can bring us together has been weaponized against us for profit and power. As we will see in the final section, the promise of all politics is in each other. It is our neighbors who provide hope for a better future and new beginnings, not political parties and perfect policies, though both can certainly help. We must learn to live with and respect one another again, or the entire political project will collapse around us like Rome.
What and where can we find hope in this time of rapid state change, political devolution, and the emergence of life in the digital space? This hope is found in relationships and with each other. Arendt argues that politics is unpredictable and can often lead to good or bad outcomes, that those outcomes may help some and harm others, which can become an unbreakable cycle of violence and revenge. Forgiveness towards others for past wrongs opens the door to the building of relationships and community that can enable collective action through promise by and to one another. Only once we forgive others for their wrongs and promise ourselves to each other in collective action (though some wrongs are of such evil to be beyond forgiveness), can the character of politics be expressed through natality. Every new birth, every new action sets in motion a future of new possibilities, and it is in that spirit that hope always lingers, even amidst a backdrop of alienation, upheaval, and the destruction of social bonds that are vital to a country’s survival.
What then can be materially done to address the social conditioning of the digital information highway and the social realm? In order to guarantee outcomes or generate revenue, corporations, tech companies, politicians, and others have weaponized the data collected from peoples’ digital use and turned it against them for their own benefit. How do people, pluralistic in their hopes, dreams, motivations, and goals find a way to come together on policy or political debate? There are two steps to addressing this: the acts of forgiveness and promise that cultivates relationship and community and finding hope in the political actions of each other. The act of forgiving a wrong that has been done and then standing in an ethic of solidarity with others to help alleviate suffering and marginalization. Again, drawing upon Hannah Arendt and Arendt scholar Adriana Cavarero, this final section argues that politics is less about rulership and instead about pluralistic people sharing a space together and cultivating real power, or as Cavarero calls it “surging democracy.”
Arendt conceptualized politics as an arena of equals in a shared space or “…by which she means the shared space of interaction between equals.” Politics becomes less about the ordering of society and implementation of the rules of the state and instead becomes the experience that comes from interacting with a plurality of people for a common goal in a shared space. This plural interaction for Arendt is helpful because it helps recover “…the completely Arendtian virtue of highlighting the generative rather than the oppositional aspect of plural interaction.” Put another way politics was a place where equals came together to work, plan, and figure out the path forward, but it always rested on forgiveness and then the promise of working together for the hope of new beginnings. Cavarero calls this “surging democracy” or the idea of a pluralistic, nonviolent, helpful, and affirming interactions that can only happen in a public square rooted in care and compassion for the other.
The concept of surging democracy is uniquely important to the issue of weaponized digital information and social conditioning because the powers that control them are large, opaque, and have access to a lot of capital. No one person or group can take on Apple, Meta, Google, Amazon, or any of the other corporate oligarchs. Ideally one can pass laws that limit their influence, but they can spend more money than most people can raise to keep their influence on the writing of laws and regulations that might affect them. The only way to break the grip of the conditioning is build relationships with others across chasms of difference. Rebecca Todd Peters argues for a solidarity ethic that is similar to Cavaero’s “surging democracy” in that one must work across differences together in order to change the social order. Only by building up relationships across difference, forgiving each other for past wrongs, and promising ourselves to each other’s well-being and flourishing can there be a “surging democracy” movement that challenges the oligarchs and powers that exert so much power over people’s daily lives. Our hope and our future rest in community, in bonds of solidarity and relationship with each other, and in the promise of new beginnings that we may not yet have grasped.
In the TV show Lost, a plane crashes on an island and the survivors must learn to work together. One of the survivors, Jack Shepard, encapsulates a recurring theme in the series: the survivors could work together, or they would all perish alone. In an era of partisan divide, vicious online interactions, dehumanization, rampant inequality, marginalization, racism, sexism, and homophobia, it is easy to see all that is wrong in the world and cut ourselves off from community in order to be safer. The problem is that all of these issues that divide us in different camps serve to only help those already in power. Calling someone an idiot on Facebook may feel good, but it does nothing to improve the material conditions of living for anyone. Bringing knowledge about an issue to a discussion is helpful, but it is only ever a first step. It is increasingly difficult in a divided society and economic order that rests on social conditioning to find true companionship and friendship. It is easy to get hurt, harassed, and harmed in online settings. Yet we must continue to forge new relationships across differences if we are ever to recapture a political square where the systems that exist can be used to benefit all people. Without forgiveness and promise, we will stay alienated from one another. Without solidarity across differences, words mean nothing. Without hope, there can be no “surging democracy” and without learning to live with each other once again, the system will collapse into something far worse than before. For Christians, this lives into the spirit of the great commission: go build communities built on the love of God and neighbor that build bonds of relationships. It is only through relationships and community that a more inclusive and just world can be more than a fanciful dream.
 See Phillip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent, (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), for more information on this shift.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 58.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 32-33.
 Ibid., 38.
 There is much more to be said here. For those interested my dissertation Christian Ethics in the Age of the Market State does a more thorough investigation into Arendt’s concept of the social than what is appropriate for this article.
 A concept introduced to me by Dr. Brent Waters.
 See William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008) and Daniel Bell, The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World, James K.A. Smith, Series Ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).
 Arendt, The Human Condition, 27-28.
 Ibid., 39.
 Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For A Human Future At the New Frontier of Power, (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), 7. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 4. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 4. Kindle Edition.
 Margaret Canovan, introduction to The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), xviii.
 Ibid., xviii-xix.
 Ibid., xvii-xix.
 Adriana Cavarero, Surging Democracy: Notes On Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021), 1 (Kindle Edition).
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 1.
 Rebecca Todd Peters, Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 10.