Mark Zuckerberg Was Almost Right In His Harvard Speech
Neoliberal speech writers released an evocative screed of rhetorical co-optation and watering down of progressive values with the Harvard commencement speech of Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook. The driver behind the rhetoric could easily have been how can we take the values of the Progressive Left, strip them of class analysis, and give Zuckerberg the chance to feel like a real person again. He gets a solid A- for effort. At one point in the speech he really seemed to want to cry as he told a story about his young, undocumented mentee teaching him about selflessness.
In the speech he tells the class of 2017 Ivy League graduates that it is their job to create purpose for all people. This exposes the worldview of the global elite. Even when waxing revolutionary the Zuck cannot bring himself to see the masses of common people as individuals capable of bring purpose into their own lives. It also sees them as pawns to be maneuvered by the well-educated elite. This has been the problem of human history up to now. While the masters define the workers’ freedom, their hunger will continue.
According to the Zuckerberg-crowd the problems faced by the contemporary poor are caused by a lack of purpose, they are not related to a system that denies representation and dignity to those without wealth. People should be empowered, he believes, so that they can achieve their dreams through commercial enterprise. And the most ear-screeching of his lofty, sweet nothings came when he told the crowd that job of the Millennial generation is to, “create a world where everybody has purpose”. When reviewing this line he commonly says that we need to give people the freedom to pursue purpose.
Having the freedom to pursue purpose is similar to the US government rhetoric that people have a right to access to healthcare. That does not mean they think people have a right to be treated when their ill. It does not even mean they have a right to affordable insurance. It means that the market has to exist. Beyond the existence of the market, if you are experiencing poverty then you are damned (to debt) if you get treatment and damned (to illness) if you do not.
He prescribed three routes of action to create this world of purposeful folk. They do not sound bad. On their faces they are forward-thinking and populist. The first prescription is to engage in big, meaningful projects. The second is to redefine equality. And the third is to build community.
To define big, meaningful projects he used stopping climate change, curing all diseases, modernizing democracy, and personalizing education. He recommended getting people involved (giving them purpose) by training millions of people to install solar panels, and having people share their health data and their mapped genomes to improve medical research. These projects reflect the market-first interests of the ruling class, the band-aid solutions which allow already wealthy individuals to grab more. Responding to climate change through manufacturing, curing all diseases as code for putting billions into the coffers of pharmaceutical companies’ while millions of people still die from curable illnesses but cannot afford treatment, modernizing democracy by putting it and voting software into private hands, and personalizing education also know as privatizing the education system and hoping enough capitalists choose to actually educate their charges that the next generation does not die from eating glue.
He proposed redefining equality to mean that people need to have the freedom to pursue purpose in life. He said that when one person cannot achieve their goals it hurts all of society. He mentioned the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the foundation created by the billionaire and his wife. With the expressed goal to advance human potential and promote equal opportunity. To do this he promoted staying on his line of giving people the freedom to pursue purpose. Because if everybody can achieve their purpose it will benefit all of humanity.
When talking about building community Zuck said something that almost made my ears bleed. I hated to hear him say it because it is similar to something that I and my Socialist friends believe. “When my generation says everyone, we mean everyone in the world”, he said. I could get behind this if he was calling for autonomy, developmental resources, and dignity for every person, but he is not. He is calling for everybody to have the freedom to pursue purpose. A phrase that, in a lawyer or judges hand, can mean absolutely nothing. Purpose does not imply fair treatment or material comfort. A slave has a purpose. A sweatshop worker has a purpose. Their purpose is to make money for a richer man.
He briefly mentioned experimenting with policies like Universal Basic Income, but a UBI is not necessarily antithetical to an unequal capitalist society. In principle, the UBI is a great way to hold off revolutionary action against the ruling classes while the economy moves toward automation and the working class suffers job losses. The notorious neoliberal economist Milton Friedman supported policy similar to a UBI for this reason, and because it would allow the government to cut social policy and market regulations. He described the problems we face today as, “the forces of freedom, openness, and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism, and nationalism. Forces for the flow of knowledge, trade, and immigration, against those who would slow them down.” Then he called for these Harvard graduates to take part in building community and pointed out several graduates who had been involved in community organizing around the world. As examples of community building he pointed out graduates such as Agnes Igoye who had trained thousands of Ugandan law enforcement officers, and David Razu Aznar a politican who helped pass marriage equality legislation in Mexico City. Then he tried to connect himself to these honorable people, saying his story is similar to theirs. That his original goal was to connect people, not to make obscene amounts of money. I am sure the Winklevoss twins, who the Zuck stole the idea for Facebook from, agree that the man is an altruist.
Zuckerberg’s speech avoided discussing poverty, instead lamenting people’s lack of freedom. He avoided discussing the causes of poverty, instead focusing on how these elite Harvard graduates would solve the problems. He was specific and accurate once on something we can agree on. Billionaires and millionaires should pay the major share of this revolution of social values he claims to want. Billionaires should pay because it is their greed for wealth, their marketing campaigns, and their hard-won (by lobbyists) government subsidies that have driven the consumerism and waste that has made climate change possibly insurmountable. In many cases, without public support these industries could not exist as they are.
So, I thank Zuckerberg for opening his mouth about the need for revolutionary change, but you, as a member of the ruling class, need to step back and let the subjugated diagnose and treat society’s problems for themselves. Do not trust a billionaire oligarch to define your freedom for you.
With all of this being said, he did end the speech with a nice sentiment that I will share.
May the source of strength who has blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
and let us say: Amen.
Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah,
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,
and let us say: Amen.