The state has lost control: tech firms now run western politics

By now, the fact that transatlantic democratic capitalism, once the engine of postwar prosperity, has run into trouble can hardly be denied by anyone with the courage to browse a daily newspaper.

Hunger, homelessness, toxic chemicals in the water supply, the lack of affordable housing: all these issues are back on the agenda, even in the most prosperous of countries. This appalling decline in living standards was some time in the making – 40 years of neoliberal policies are finally taking their toll – so it shouldn’t come as a shock.

However, coupled with the spillover effects of wars in the Middle East – first the refugees, now the increasingly regular terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe – our economic and political malaise looks much more ominous. It’s hardly surprising that the insurgent populist forces, on both left and right, have such an easy time bashing the elites. From Flint, Michigan, to Paris, those in power have accomplished such feats of cluelessness and incompetence that they have made Donald Trump look like a superman capable of saving planet Earth.

It seems that democratic capitalism – this odd institutional creature that has tried to marry a capitalist economic system (the implicit rule by the few) to a democratic political one (the explicit rule by the many) – has run into yet another legitimation crisis.

This term, made popular by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in the early 1970s, aptly captures the dissonance between the stated objectives of our political institutions – the need to promote equality, justice, fairness – and today’s harsh political reality, where the very same institutions often stand in the way of upholding those values.

Habermas’s initial conception of legitimation crisis emphasised its cultural dimension, for, as he assumed at the time, the smoothly running welfare state, despite all the naysaying by the radicals, was reducing social disparities, empowering the workers and ensuring that they got a growing share of the still-expanding economic pie.

That argument did not age well. As became obvious a decade later, governments were increasingly forced to resort to a panoply of means to continue satisfying both capital and labour – a trajectory that has been well documented by Habermas’s main opponent in Germany, the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck.

First it was inflation; then it was unemployment; then public debt; eventually it was financial deregulation in order to facilitate private debt, so that citizens could at least borrow money to buy things that they could no longer afford and that the government, now subject to neoliberal dogmas about the virtues of austerity, could subsidise no more.

But none of those solutions could last, simply postponing – but not resolving – the legitimation crisis. Today, global elites face two options for dealing with its latest manifestation. One is to accept the anti-establishment populism of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Even though the two disagree on many social and political issues, both oppose the neoliberal consensus on globalisation, challenging the mainstream views on the virtues of free trade (as codified in treaties like Nafta or TTIP) and the need for America to play a robust role abroad (both would prefer a more isolationist stance).

The other option, and a much more palatable one to the Davos crowd, is to hope for a miracle that would help convince the public that the structural crisis we are in is not structural and that something else – big data, automation, the “fourth industrial revolution” – will step in to save us or, at least, delay the ultimate rupture, a process that Streeck, brilliantly, has characterised as “buying time”.

Today, however, there’s a major change. While the financial industry has historically been key to “buying time” and staving off the populist rebellion, in the future that role will be assigned to the technology industry, with a minor role played by the global advertising markets – the very magic wand that allows so many digital services to be offered for free, in exchange for our data.

The contours of this new accommodation between governments and industry are already beginning to emerge. Real incomes might be stagnating and the population might no longer want to take any more debt but there is no cause for panic: after all, a growing number of services, from communications to preventive healthcare, are already free. Plus, we have new ways to make our ends meet, mostly by prostituting our free time and other possessions. And the government, as the latest budget reveals, would even be happy to offer tax allowances to such micro-entrepreneurs!

Since all this data generated on digital platforms has an immense market value, it can be profitably sold off to fit any holes in the budget – including by governments themselves. Universities, insurance firms, banks: plenty of companies would be happy to buy it.

Finally, technology firms – thanks to data they collect – can always position themselves as essential to fighting the terrorist threat. For every Tim Cook fighting the FBI, there’s a Peter Thiel, the famed venture capitalist and the chairman of Palantir, a $20bn machine-learning giant that caters to the defence establishment. In a recent interview, Thiel even boasted that Palantir’s technology had helped thwart terrorist attacks.

The grim reality of contemporary politics is not that it’s impossible to imagine how capitalism will end – as the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson once famously put it – but that it’s becoming equally impossible to imagine how it could possibly continue, at least, not in its ideal form, tied, however weakly, to the democratic “polis”. The only solution that seems plausible is by having our political leaders transfer even more responsibility for problem-solving, from matters of welfare to matters of warfare, to Silicon Valley.

This might produce immense gains in efficiency but would this also not aggravate the democratic deficit that already plagues our public institutions? Sure, it would – but the crisis of democratic capitalism seems so acute that it has dropped any pretension to being democratic; hence the proliferation of euphemisms to describe the new normal (with Angela Merkel’s “market-conformed democracy” probably being the most popular one).

Besides, the slogans of the 1970s that were meant to bolster the democratic pillar of the compromise between capital and labour, from economic and industrial democracy to codetermination, look quaint in an era where workers of the “gig economy” cannot even unionise, let along participate in some broader management of the enterprise.

There’s something even more sinister afoot though. “Buying time” no longer seems like an adequate description of what is happening, if only because technology companies, even more so than the banks, are not only too big too fail but also impossible to undo – let alone replicate – even if a new government is elected.

Many of them have already taken on the de facto responsibilities of the state; any close analysis of what’s happening with “smart cities” – whereby technology firms become key gateways to essential services of our cities – easily confirms that.

In fact, technology firms are rapidly becoming the default background condition in which our politics itself is conducted. Once Google and Facebook take over the management of essential services, Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that “there is no alternative” would no longer be a mere slogan but an accurate description of reality.

The worst is that today’s legitimation crisis could be our last. Any discussion of legitimacy presupposes not just the ability to sense injustice but also to imagine and implement a political alternative. Imagination would never be in short supply but the ability to implement things on a large scale is increasingly limited to technology giants. Once this transfer of power is complete, there won’t be a need to buy time any more – the democratic alternative will simply no longer be a feasible option.

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