This is a useful interview on how to deal with tech monopolies, but I think it doesn’t go far enough. The approaches that Doctrow lays out are, I think, an excellent starting place. If we want humanity to survive the next century or two, and to simultaneously build a more just and happy society, we need to be working on a whole lot of changes all at once. That means the kinds of power-building work I’ve talked about before, but it also means using the the political system we have now to make that other work easier, to whatever degree we can. That means both direct organizing, and working through our representative democracy. We have to do it all.
Under the current system, the default approach to change is a sort of timid incrementalism that always seems to treat history as a settled matter, starting yesterday. That means that when a dramatic change is made, there’s generally a great deal of opposition and complaining, but then as soon as anyone suggests changing things back, it’s treated as just as big a problem as the initial change. Change is viewed as both generally bad, and as value-neutral. The problem isn’t the kind of change, it’s the scale of that change. Taking steps to undo the damage done by “Reaganomics”, or even by the Trump administration, is met with similar or even increased level of hand-wringing, as the initial damage. It’s different people making a stink, but they make about the same level of stink, and more importantly, the media treats it as all being the same.
It’s all just a game played by opposing teams, and it’s “fair” to give both sides equal footing.
Of course, this ignores the fact that, when one side fetishizes procedure and incrementalism, while the other side is committed to getting their way no matter the cost, you get predictable results. Things either move in the direction preferred by the more committed side, or they don’t move at all.
Changes in social norms – like the gradually increasing acceptance of homosexuality – can happen under this framework, but not any real changes in how power is distributed or used.
We tend to treat it as an unassailable truth that the way we operate now is the best way to operate, and so truly systemic change is anathema. That’s why, for all the changes seen in the United States over the last century, power has continued to rest primarily in the hands of the capitalist class, which has used its power to whittle away those changes in things like labor law and social safety nets that gave more power to the working classes.
People whose primary goal is the accumulation of wealth and power will always use the wealth and power they currently have to get more. The more they have, the more they are able to reshape society to funnel more to themselves, and to prevent others from preventing that. This is a path that leads inevitably to monopoly and to oligarchy. Even if someone like Bezos or Gates were to decide that they should burn through all of their personal net worth to solve one problem or another, the end result of that is that they would lose the personal power that society gives to capitalists, and someone else would increase in power by comparison. At best, the changes made by one multibillionaire would be temporary, and rolled back by those multibillionaires who chose instead to continue hoarding power.
Ultimately, the only way out of this trap is to make it impossible for individuals to hold that level of power. Until we do that, there will always be people like the Kochs, like Bezos, like Musk, or like Gates, pulling strings around the globe for their personal benefit, and asserting control over resources that we desperately need for things like dealing with pandemics, or with global climate change.
We need to use the tools we have – taxation and regulation – to decrease the power of the ruling class, much as FDR was doing when he talked about taking power away from “economic royalists”, but we cannot simply stop there. We can’t win in a metaphorical bout of fisticuffs and then walk away having “taught them a lesson”, while still leaving them with outsized wealth and power. History has shown that they will, in general, respond by stabbing us in the back. Their goal is dominance, not winning in a fair fight.
Take away all of their power, and don’t give it to anyone else. Use it for degrowth, for new energy infrastructure, and for adaptation to coming climate change. Use it to make sure that nobody can use poverty or deprivation to force others to work FOR them.
We have to knock down the ruling class and kick them while they’re down. We have to remove that class from existence. That does not mean that we have to kill anyone, necessarily. Ideally, the “horrible fate” I want for today’s billionaires includes guaranteed healthcare, food, shelter, freedom of speech, expression, and movement, and so on. The one thing I want to take away from them is their ability to govern the lives of other people, and I don’t want that ability to go to anyone else in their stead.
We are in a fight for our lives, and for the lives of those with less power than each of us might personally be able to wield. We are fighting against people who have attained their power by exploiting every loophole and weakness they can find, and cheating every person they can. We are not in a fair fight, and we should not pretend otherwise.
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