General Will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google by Hiroki Azuma

General Will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google by Hiroki Azuma (orig. 2011, translated from Japanese in 2014). This book promises to reread scholars of social thought (Rousseau, Freud, Rorty, Nozick) in light of the internet to come to new conclusion about societies and the state in the Internet era. Azuma believes that the ideal deliberative democracy of Habermas and Arendt is dead, as contemporary topics require too much specialization to include very many people.

Instead, he proposes that the governments should be guided by what amounts to sentiment analysis of Twitter livestreaming at them during policy discussions. The reason that sentiment analysis is legitimate is that the collective murmurs of the non-specialist people on contemporary political topics forms a version of Rousseau’s general will. Azuma spends a great deal of time explaining the general will and how it is linked to Freud’s idea of the unconscious, then argues that a collective unconscious in the internet era is contained in the data of livestreams and databases (thus the Google of the title).

So the main argument of the book is that we can understand the will of the people in a new way via livestream/database analysis. The result is that the general will of the people should guide policy and policymakers should resist the general will at their peril. It’s not a long book and its claims are intentionally small, but well-made.

That is, until the final chapter, where he projects this type of politics 50 years into the future and starts talking about a minimalist state (military, police, and UBI only) that has “a politics guided by utilitarianism and libertarianism.” He feels that values are incommensurable (which is sentiment analysis of livestreams/databases is more desirable than deliberative democracy) and thus the future of the state is to get out of the business of national politics and let bunches of “pseudo-states” govern themselves however they want inside the framework of the minimalist state. (He takes this idea from Nozick’s libertarian work.) It is a sudden, hard shift in the book, if one that is roughly supported by the framework he has developed.

I agree that deliberative democracy has had a hard time in the internet era (Filter bubbles! Polarization! Hardened ingroup/outgroup binaries! I acknowledge all of these!), but I still find it hard to move from “deliberative democracy is struggling” to giving up on it entirely. I don’t think we have exhausted our options for trying new ways of deliberation. I grant that he has identified a real problem and suggested a theoretically workable solution with practical steps toward the final outcome he desires. Despite granting his argument, his vision is not one I agree with as an appealing model for how to go forward in social thought and politics, online and off.

It’s a well-written book. I enjoyed reading it, even if I disagree with his conclusions.