What does it mean to live in the era of neoliberalism? It is to recognize that the world is a mess and that I, as an individual, can fix it by being responsible for my life. So far, nothing perverse with this line of thought. Then we add this in the equation: If everybody will behave like I do, making the right life choices and focusing on self-improvement, the world can be a better place to live in, all else being equal.
If this is our guide to ethical living, then it reflects how we unknowingly internalized the logic of neoliberalism. It complements triumphalist individualism that blindly worships the magic of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market while fanatically disavowing the role of the state and other visible collectives in society.
It is one thing to be a responsible individual, but another to think that promoting individualism is the primary solution to society’s woes. It is understandable to blame recidivists, but why expect everybody to stop demanding systemic reforms until we first address our own problems. It is rational to expect the state to be efficient, but to reject the mandate of the state with regard to delivering vital services is quite a fundamentalist (neoliberalist) view.
How did this disturbing ideology of individualism become dominant in society? First, it was made normal through the school sorting machine. Then it became appealing through corporate media and popular culture. The state enforced it through various programs and laws; but its ultimate endorsement is by outsourcing its core functions to the private sector supposedly to motivate citizens in accessing (read: buying) a greater set of public goods.
Reinforcing this ideology is the rapid rise of information technologies that facilitated the further alienation of selfie-obsessed netizens from the rest of society. It gave a false sense of power, but perhaps deeply satisfying, to individuals who can now instantly retrieve information, expand social media influence, and make transactions through mobile internet.
The belief that digital apps enabled netizens to acquire better capital without needing the help of others and the state reveals the pervasive power of the ideology of individualism. But it is at best illusory because what is not rendered visible is the labor of those who installed the fiber optic cables, those who assembled the smartphones, the collective process of training individuals, and the contribution of family, friends and other institutions in making virtual networks popular and possible.
The ubiquitous spread of the so-called digital economy has given the state a persuasive arsenal to pin the blame back to individuals for the deteriorating state of living in society.
This is manifested in statements exhorting the public to continually update themselves with information that can save their lives (disaster advisories) or improve their life chances (job notices or labor trends). This is extended to almost all spheres of life under the purview of the state. Traffic? Seek alternative transport through the information bulletins provided by agencies. Low wages? Acquire financial literacy. High tuition? Publish all fees of schools to improve consumer choice.
Amid the dizzying exchange of digital content, netizens are hypnotized to absorb tons of information hoping that some of these data sets could prove useful to their lives. Information overload is not considered a destructive symptom but an opportunity to transcend the difficulties of modern living.
Hence, the emergence of cyber-addicted individuals who are always searching not just for spectacles, virality, and online notoriety but information that seemingly matter and trends that could potentially equip individuals with the hoped-for power, influence, and advantage over others. The netizen as a modern individual who seeks a better representation of the body and the self in this day and age when everything can be programmed, coded, and fact-checked.
Individuals now spend more attention trying to blend their online and offline profiles, which gives them less time to ponder about politics and the lives of others.
Individuals are distracted by the fantastic offerings of the Internet algorithm instead of the inequalities generated by the power dynamics in society.
Individuals are overawed by the knowledge economy without understanding the political economy of the web.
Individuals are deciphering the flaws in the flow of information and not the global distribution of real and imagined wealth. There is no probing of the structures of inequality and injustice that could easily explain the worsening Internet exclusion in the world.
The state elevated information consumption as an individual duty. This was done at a time when the state was methodically smashing and undermining the social forces in society that traditionally created strong bonds among individuals such as unions and cooperatives. Yet it arrogates upon itself the right to preach about duty and responsibility.
The poor netizen – unemployed, uneducated, and unlisted from receiving social welfare – is an easy prey to state propaganda that his situation is of his own undoing. That it was his failure to connect and access information from publicly available networks that doomed his career. In other words, as mentioned earlier when we were discussing individualism under neoliberalism, the individual failed to take responsibility for his life.
This is the real legacy of neoliberalism in the 21st century. Individuals are frantically googling everything about what is wrong with their lives instead of taking a deeper look at the world around them. Individuals think they are rigging the system by manipulating information on the web, but so far the oppressive structures of power are still existing.