The New Opium of the People: Hegemony and False Consciousness in The Circle

George Carlin famously said “When fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts. It will not be with jack-boots. It will be Nike sneakers and Smiley shirts”. This quote couldn’t be more relevant in Dave Eggers novel The Circle in which the company of the same name is able to usher in capitalist totalitarianism not through force, but through the consent of the masses in the form of zings and smileys. This consent is manufactured through The Circle’s hegemonic control of the superstructure of society where, as the gatekeepers of information they are able to control the narrative and give rise to a false consciousness in which people enthusiastically participate in their own exploitation. In this way, The Circle can be seen as a parable for the dangers of neoliberalism left to its own devices and its need to justify the contradictions and absurdities that are inherent within it.

Historically, one of the most prominent ways in which leaders and societies justified exploitative systems is through religious ideology, which Marx famously called the opiate of the people. So it comes as no surprise that Eggers consistently links religion with The Circle. Rather than daily prayers in order to get into heaven Circle users must send zings and smileys in order to get their hit of dopamine and hopefully ascend the ranks of internet stardom. Instead of worshipping God they worship the mysterious triumvirate of the wise men and instead of being watched by God there is mass surveillance and big brother. Perhaps one of the most direct connections can be seen in the opening line, “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven”(Eggers 1). These connections are not coincidental and primarily serve to bring attention to the fact that both the cult like following of The Circle and religion are forms of what Gramsci would call cultural hegemonic control. These ideologies exist to justify and naturalize the absurdity of the system and make exploitation not only the norm but hidden from plain view.

One major aspect of Gramsci’s definition of cultural hegemony was an institutions ability to modify a society’s core beliefs, values, and morals. This is something The Circle is constantly doing. Not only is The Circle a dominant and powerful company in monetary terms, but also in their dominance of the media. By having almost total control over the internet and media they are able to become the gatekeepers who control what information is broadcasted. As a result, they are able to define the dominant narratives and control what is defined as moral and immoral. This becomes more than evident as The Circle comes up with the set of 1984-esque mantras “SECRETS ARE LIES SHARING IS CARING PRIVACY IS THEFT”(Eggers 350). These ideas about morality that The Circle preaches are strikingly similar to the moral code that nearly all religions.

These moral imperatives that The Circle preaches are strikingly similar to the moral code that nearly all religions lay out, and both exist to justify exploitation. In The Circle their mantras are seen as objective moral truths that should be followed by any upstanding citizen. This means that The Circle’s constant expansion and its mass surveillance systems are seen as an extension of morality rather than an exercise in oppression. A religious parallel would be the idea of holy wars and specifically The Crusades. Those in power at the time wanted to increase their territory and wealth so they simply framed imperial wars as God’s will and so brutal acts of violence were seen as moral. So because The Circle has control over what is defined as moral they can essentially shape their own reality and justify any of their exploitative actions and reframe them as progress.

Another important aspect of the company’s moral ideology is the inherent missionary aspect of loyal users of The Circle. If those around you are not participating in and embracing The Circle then they are standing in the way of progress and morality itself. This is unsettling to Circlers and so they embark on what is essentially an evangelist mission to convert those who have yet to see the light. Mae is constantly trying to convert Mercer but he remains fiercely opposed no matter how she makes her argument. This reaches its conclusion in the chase scene where Mae proclaims “something about his inability to give in, to admit defeat, or at least acknowledge the incredible power of the technology at Mae’s command…she knew she couldn’t give up until she had received some sense of acquiescence”(Eggers 464). Mae goes so far in her attempt to convert Mercer that he ends up dead at the bottom of a ditch because he felt he had no other option.

But this evangelism is not limited to individual characters in the book but is also applied to the masses. When Mae and Francis are at a bar celebrating DeMoxie a man sits down with them He explains how he thinks Demoxie is the final step in bringing God’s will upon the people and bring forth a universal morality. He states that “This has been the work of missionaries for millennia”(Eggers 398) and that The Circle will allow everyone to cast down the wrath, judgment, and forgiveness of God. But much like in Christianity and other religions this will of God is no more than an amalgamation of ruling class ideology.

But The Circle does not just control the narrative through positively reinforcing notions that support their brand of ideology but also just as importantly by the silencing of any opposing ideology. The first opposition we see in the novel is by a congresswoman who states that The Circle is a monopoly that should be broken up. She goes further saying “The dominance of the Circle stifles competition and is dangerous to our way of free-market capitalism”(Eggers 174). A few weeks later though authorities discover child pornography on her computer which was clearly planted there by The Circle to discredit her. It is the ultimate ad hominem attack in the modern age and completely discredits anything she said previously. This is also not an isolated incident and towards the end of the book, Ty even says in reference to Williamson “That’s about the hundredth person Stenton’s done that to”(Eggers 488).

In addition, they are also able to frame those who don’t subscribe to their ideology as social outcasts who are unfortunately misguided through no direct action of their own. This is most clearly exemplified in the character of Mercer who is characterized as a backward thinking Luddite. When Mae is reading his letter that explains his principled opposition to The Circle and his withdrawal from society. As it’s being streamed through her camera there are immediate responses from the audience chastising him. One says “Now the Sasquatch will return to his natural habitat!”(Eggers 437) while it’s also noted that four Mercer hate clubs form almost instantaneously. Mercer’s position is like that of an atheist in a Puritanical society. What’s interesting about this situation is the fact that, in opposition to the acts of blackmail, these reactions were organic and not created by The Circle, but were an accurate representation of how people saw him.

So the result of this hegemonic control is that The Circle has no need to coerce or use force to further its agenda. The Circle has its base of fervent supporters, such as Mae, who believe they are essentially doing God’s work. They see themselves as constantly improving the world and moving closer and closer to the “rapture” or completing the circle and creating a utopia. This helps to establish normative behavior in the society and makes it so those who do not participate become outcasts. While it may still be optional to participate, at least at first, non-participation comes with its costs and so most people end up conforming.

This is what Gramsci called “the manufacture of consent”. For Gramsci true power comes from consent and not through the use of force. But just because there isn’t use of force doesn’t mean there aren’t means of producing consent to the hegemony. Mae is repeatedly told that participation in social events and social media are optional but strongly encouraged. But they are encouraged to the point where they are only optional in theory. Non-participation means being reprimanded by management and human resources, potentially losing your job and a whole host of other negative consequences. So while technically you aren’t required to engage in these behaviors your consent is manufactured and as a result, you will eventually have to give in.

This hegemonic consent is so important because without it The Circle, much like capitalism, which it comes to represent, would collapse in on itself. Both of these entities have inherent contradictions and absurdities within them. This is clearly demonstrated when Bailey explains the effect the live stream cameras will have on the world. He claims that it could almost completely eliminate crime and justifies this by saying “when there’s something kept secret, two things happen. One is that it makes crimes possible. We behave worse when we’re not accountable”(Eggers 299). But this explanation fails to understand the true base of what causes crime. People don’t steal due to a lack of moral fortitude but due to economic necessity. Bailey’s explanation makes it a personal moral failing but if a person is starving that is evidence of a failing and dysfunctional system, not a person’s personal flaws.

But all of these contradictions are concealed due to the hegemonic dominance The Circle has been able to so effectively institute. This is why hegemony is such an important part of the capitalist system because, without it, exploitation would be laid bare and seen for what it is. Crude and base exploitation with no real objective justification. So it comes as no surprise that The Circle spends so much energy and time on defining narratives because, in the end, it’s the only thing standing between total dominance and the complete and utter collapse of the system.

The Circle Completion

The mind can only be controlled if at some point, the person starts to believe what is being told to them as truth. It is at that point they will question their own opinions. In the novel, The Circle by Dave Eggers, the protagonist, Mae Holland, allows herself to be manipulated by The Circle company. Mae represents herself to others the way she wants to be perceived throughout the book. The Circle lures Mae into their mind game which causes her to become desensitized and without a conscience; ultimately detached from her most intimate relationships. It is through Mae’s complete character transformation that The Circle becomes complete.

Healthy relationships starting when we are young play a vital role in shaping the type of people we later become and by fulfilling our need of acceptance. The Circle prides itself on creating a more social society, when in fact it actually isolates Mae from all those she cares about most. Mae’s most important relationships prior to joining The Circle are with her parents. She is an only child and is very close with her supportive, loving parents. As the novel begins Mae seeks comfort from her parents when she is stressed. She even travels home for the weekend after her first week at The Circle. However, as the story progresses, there is a clear shift in her actions with regards to her relationship with her parents. The narrator even states that, “Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off campus” (Eggers 373). This is strange because in the beginning of the novel, Mae is constantly at home checking up on her father who had recently been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Mae’s parents are incredibly proud of her when she is hired at The Circle, especially when she gets them on the company’s health insurance. Her parents had been battling insurance bills because they did not have a secure health insurance plan, however, The Circle’s plan offers them a reprieve. Her parents’ content takes a downward spiral once the SeeChange cameras are installed in their house. At this point, Mae “admits that she hasn’t spoken to her parents in over a week but promises to pay them a visit” (Eggers 361) solely to find out why they covered up the cameras in their house. It is here that the final wedge forms between Mae and her parents. After accidentally walking in on her parents while they are having sex Mae’s transparency camera live-streams this unfortunate accident and all ties of communication are cut off between them.

The next of Mae’s relationships to combust is that with her ex-boyfriend Mercer. From the very beginning Mercer is very vocal about his disapproval of The Circle. In one of their earlier conversations, Mercer states, “It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication” (Eggers 263). Throughout the book, Mercer does everything he can to defy The Circle and its motives. He disconnects his social media forums, shuts down his antler-business website and even goes as far as traveling up North in an effort to outrun technology’s advancements. Mercer also reverts in communication and only contacts Mae through hand-written letters. Before being pushed to his own demise, Mercer also says that The Circle has, “eliminated my ability to just talk to you. I mean, I can’t send you emails, because you immediately forward them to someone else. I can’t send you a photo, because you post it on your own profile. And meanwhile, your company is scanning all of our messages for information they can monetize. Don’t you think this is insane?” (Eggers 132). As a result, Mae continues to push Mercer to accept the ways of The Circle and simply conform. In the end, Mae and Mercer’s relationship crumbles with the invention of SoulSearch, which allows you to find anyone’s whereabouts. Despite his efforts to stay hidden, Mercer is tracked and located in Oregon. After being found and chased by drones, Mercer fears that he could be chased to the ends of the Earth and sees no other way to escape except committing suicide and driving his car off a bridge. Mae’s indifference and lack empathy for causing Mercer’s death are a direct result of The Circle’s influence.

This influence continues to impact Mae’s core relationships as seen with the deterioration of her friendship with Annie. The two had met in college and when Mae applies for a job at The Circle, Annie vouches for her and gets Mae the job. Their friendship begins to take a downward spiral when Mae begins to gain more popularity among their coworkers. Annie feels threatened by Mae’s quick success, which leads to a constant competition between them. Most of Annie’s signs of jealousy are seen passive-aggressively through facial expression. For example, at the meeting that the gang of forty holds Mae sees that, “alighted on Annie’s face, and because it was stern, and dissatisfied, and seemed to be expecting, or wanting, Mae to fail, to embarrass herself…” (Eggers 390). Moreover, at that same meeting, Annie challenges Mae’s proposition by asking, “How do we do that?” (Eggers 392). Annie attempts to make Mae look inferior at this meeting because she is envious of the attention that Mae is receiving. In a last effort to triumph over Mae, Annie volunteers to be a part of The Circle’s latest project, PastPerfect. In the end, the project causes Annie to suffer from a major anxiety breakdown and she ends up in a coma. While monitoring Annie, it becomes apparent to the reader how bothered Mae is that she cannot read Annie’s thoughts. She decides to, “bring this up with Stenton and Bailey. They needed to talk about Annie, the thoughts she was thinking” (Eggers 497). In the end, Mae has no care for Annie’s health and is more concerned with pitching an idea that could gain her more popularity at The Circle.

Instead of attempting to rekindle her relationships with her parents, Mercer and Annie, Mae puts all of her energy into her work, her social rank and most importantly her viewers. The longer Mae is at The Circle, the more numb she becomes to humanity. The narrator even explains that, “This was a new skill she’d acquired, the ability to look, to the outside world, utterly serene and even cheerful, while, in her skull, all was chaos” (Eggers 325 ). Despite the company’s dedication to all things social, Mae’s peer interactions become less meaningful as the story progresses. When Mercer commits suicide, Mae carries on like nothing happened. Mercer’s death is seen as insignificant to both Mae and The Circle because they do not view him as a contributing member of society.

Similar to how she feels about Mercer, there are many instances in which Mae’s beliefs are skewed by The Circle. The beginning of the novel shows the only clear representation of the person Mae was before becoming involved with The Circle. At this point, Mae is her own person and her mind is not controlled by outside entities. However, Mercer tells Mae that she, “willingly ties herself to leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen” (Eggers 134). In the end, Mae is perfectly okay with being under constant surveillance. She is a massive supporter of the “See Change” cameras and transparency. Mae goes as far to say that, “Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know- they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered” (Eggers 490). By the end of the novel, Mae has surrendered herself to The Circle. In fact, Mae’s constant obsession for information is simply not enough for her and she comes to the conclusion that, “It was internal: it was subjective: it was not knowing” (Eggers 194). Mae now suffers from anxiety if she doesn’t know something. While watching Annie’s brain waves while she is in the coma, Mae actually expresses how bothered she is at not knowing what Annie is thinking. By the end of the book, The Circle succeeds at creating the new Mae, a loyal servant of their company.

Mae has become so transparent by the end of the book that there is no substance left to her. She lets The Circle isolate her from her closest relationships which makes her more malleable to the company. This causes her to become detached from her former relationships, giving her no reason to leave the campus. The Circle’s constantly new and upcoming technology gives Mae the opportunity to portray herself the way she wants to be seen by her digitized peers. Mae loses her sense of humanity and becomes the indoctrinated and disillusioned figurehead that The Circle wants her to be. With Mae on their side, The Circle has completely devoured the person she once was and with that, the circle is complete.

How the Three-Part Structure of ‘The Circle’ Underscores Eggers’s Message

Dave Egger’s novel The Circle follows a young woman named Mae who joins an innovative company called the Circle. The Circle is the forefront of all things technological, including the creation of one system for all types of social media and personal identification. The Circle is seen as the beginnings of a utopia, but it is not at all what it seems to be. The Circle is split into 3 smaller books, and through each book, the reader sees more and more that the Circle is enthralling us to believe that its adherents are the future, but in reality, they are trying to take over everything. Eggers uses the separation of The Circle into other books to show the evolution of technology and social media and how it consumes modern life.

The first section of the novel, called Book I, is about Mae’s transition into her new life at the Circle. She is given all of the newest technology, and has access to the Circle’s company social media. She is given the task of Customer Experience, which is replying to consumers’ questions and need. In addition to this, she is told to uphold her visibility on social media, participating as much as she possibly can. The Circle was first founded with something called TruYou, where “all of every user’s needs and tools, into one pot and invented TruYou – one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person” (Eggers 21). The Circle began with this one idea to combine everything into one account. In the real world, this would be considered a amazing convenience to not have to set up multiple accounts. The Circle is meant to show what society can do with advanced technology, but later in the novel, it also shows the implications of that. Not long into her job at the Circle, she listens to her first speech about new tech coming to the Circle, and she hears about SeeChange. SeeChange is a new, small camera that can be put anywhere and no longer be noticeable. One of the presidents of the company, Eamon Bailey, says that “We will become all-seeing, all-knowing’” (70-71). All of technology is based on trying to receive all knowledge possible, and that is what the Circle does. It appears wonderful to know all, but later in the novel, it is obvious that knowing all is not right.

In addition to the new technology at the Circle, the company’s social media is a big part of this novel. There is a social media network called the Inner Circle, used only by those who work for the Circle, and in this network, all of the people are ranked by their participation in their social media, called the PartiRank. Most of the members of the Circle use this ranking as a competition of popularity, and soon, Mae joins in, and spends a night working on her ranking: “[i]t was six o’clock. She had plenty of time to improve. . .In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,288. . .By 10:16 her rank was 5,342. . .She was determined to break 3,000. And she did so, though it was 3:19 am” (191-192). Mae literally spends 9 hours on her phone, ‘smiling’ and ‘frowning’ and commenting and posting, until her PartiRank goes up. She is addicted to the numbers and the ranking, like most of the other Circle members, and especially, the approval of being so high ranked. Social media is an ever-consuming competition, but it is also just ever-consuming in general. When Mae visits her family, she is greeted by her ex-boyfriend Mercer, who does not like the path the Circle and its’ employees are taking. Mercers says that to Mae that “[you] willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai” (262). Mercer, though he is meant to be an antagonist, is right. Mae has spent so much time on the advanced technology and social media she is given, and she only sees her family once every couple of weeks, now in the fear that she will no longer be posting, and will no longer be at a high PartiRank. The world is so hellbent on ‘smiling’ and ‘frowning’ and posting and commenting that no one can enjoy what is happening away from the screen, and in Book II, it begins to become more of an issue.

In the beginning of Book II, Mae decides to go transparent, letting everyone in the entire world see every aspect of her life. In fact, many other people have gone transparent, including most of the United States government officials and many officials in other countries. The presence of social media has an even larger impact on politics in the novel than it does in the real world, and even is used to sway the political environment in a country: “[w]e’ve sent over 180 million frowns from the U.S. alone, and you can bet this has an effect on the regime” (347). Now, social media is becoming a huge aspect to government. People disliking something turns into social injustice, which in turn ruins an entire government. People have a say, which can be favorable, but when social media is involved, too many people, like those who do not live in the country, get to spread their opinions. Transparency is a large aspect of the world Eggers created in The Circle, and for some people, like Mae’s parents, it is not favorable. Because of Mae’s father’s battle with health issues, the Circle installed cameras in their homes to track his health as part of their health insurance plan. Mae’s parents do not like this, and after a couple of months, they remove the cameras with the help of Mercer. In a letter Mercer writes to Mae, he says that “I helped them cover some of the cameras. I even bought the fabric. I was happy to do it. They don’t want to be smiled upon, or frowned upon, or zinged. They want to be alone. And not watched. Surveillance shouldn’t be the tradeoff for any goddamn service we get” (370). Mercer knows exactly what is going on. He knows that what the Circle is doing is not right, but no one else except for him and Mae’s parents seem to notice. Everyone in the world loves what the Circle is doing, and so they continue.

Here also, Mae goes into a meeting with the founders of the Circle, and there, they talk about a new system called Demoxie. Demoxie is meant to be a new way to vote in political elections, and since the Circle already has all of the information that registering to vote requires and more, they want to do it through the Circle, and require all people who are eligible to vote to have a Circle account. Their support to this idea is that “[i]f we can know the will of the people at any time, without filter, without misinterpretation or bastardization, wouldn’t it eliminate much of Washington?” (395). The Circle now suggests completely taking over the government with Demoxie, the new way to vote. They want to make having a Circle account mandatory, and they are attempting to be the owner of everything. The Circle intends to make life more and more convenient, so people look past the obvious attempt at controlling the world and the minds of people. The Circle therefore is enabled to continue taking over the world, with no outside force even trying to halt it. In the novel, there is an effective analogy using a deep-sea shark and its neighbors, an octopus and seahorses. One of the founders of the Circle had a submarine built, and captured the sea creatures for separate viewing in the Circle. Weeks later, he decides to assimilate all of the creatures together, and the result was this: “the shark circled and stabbed until he had devoured the thousand babies, and the seaweed, and the coral, and the anemones. It ate everything, and deposited the remains quickly, carpeting the empty aquarium in a low film of white ash” (481-482). The shark in this sense is meant to be the Circle, consuming all of the world until it devoured everything. The horror of the shark eating all of the innocent seahorses and plants is meant to induce horror in the reader, and hope that Mae picks up on this. She doesn’t. Even when not long after the shark incident, she meets with Kalden, who actually is Ty, the founder of the company. He tells her about how the company has turned into his nightmare, and as the face of the company and its innovations, she needs to do something about it.

In Book III, the narrative starts with the assumption that Mae did heed Ty’s warning. Mae seems shaken up by the entire ordeal: “[t]o have gotten so close to apocalypse – it rattled her still. Yes, Mae had averted it” (495). In fact, she did not listen to Ty. She reported Ty to the other founders, and they stopped the revolution against the Circle from happening. This final book is not very long, but the reader learns that Ty is basically demoted from his role as a founder, and that Annie, Mae’s best friend, is in a coma. Mae finds she is annoyed by the fact that she does not know Annie’s thoughts, and she hates that she does not know. In one of the novel’s final paragraphs, the Circle’s goal is almost finished: “replaced by a new and glorious openness, a world of perpetual light. Completion was imminent, and it would bring peace, and it would bring unity” (497). This is the thought of almost everyone in the entire world. The world is at the best it can be according to Circle, but it is at an extreme cost, where every move a person makes is now accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, no one is aware of this.

Splitting The Circle into 3 smaller books, Dave Eggers shows that technology and social media consumes modern life. The more advanced technology gets, the more people want more and more. The more people replace social interaction with social media, the more sensitive and consumed by the likes and approval. The Circle shows the world that we know now as an insane, all-consuming dystopia, and it is the job of the people in the modern world to keep this dystopia from existing.