After a late night out, I arrived at the breakfast table this morning admittedly a bit disheveled and somewhat behind my normal schedule. Chad, in contrast, was looking as cool and equanimous as ever, perfectly capable, as always, of rationally expounding on a new topic. Remembering one of our recent conversations about hyperreality, I offered this challenge.
“Tell me Chad, you certainly know Yanis Varoufakis, who has described today’s economy as ‘techno-feudalism.’ His concept suggests that democratic government may be simply a facade, an example of hyperreality. Policy is untethered not only from the act of voting but from any other means of expressing or even recognizing the population’s real needs. If this is true, what kind of political reform could enable people living in formal democracies to have an effective voice in decision-making?”
I always appreciate Chad’s imperturbable good humor and his talent for taking my every question seriously. This contrasts with some people I know who would dismiss my question by protesting that the term techno-feudalism has no meaning or by impertinently asking, “Who cares what Varoufakis thinks?” Chad went straight to the core of the former Greek finance minister’s insight, and provided this thorough response.
“The concept of “techno-feudalism” suggests that economic power has become concentrated in the hands of a few large technology companies, which have significant control over various aspects of our lives, including how we access information, communicate with each other, and consume goods and services. This concentration of power can undermine the democratic process by reducing the ability of people to influence decision-making.
To address this problem, political reforms are needed to increase transparency, accountability, and democratic participation. Some possible reforms that could help include:
Campaign finance reform: Limiting the influence of money in politics by limiting campaign contributions and increasing transparency about who is funding political campaigns.
Strengthening anti-trust laws: Breaking up large technology companies that have a dominant position in their respective markets can encourage competition and reduce their influence over political decision-making.
Promoting digital democracy: Encouraging the use of digital tools to promote citizen participation in decision-making, such as online voting, participatory budgeting, and crowdsourcing of policy ideas.
Reining in surveillance capitalism: Regulating the collection and use of personal data by technology companies to protect individual privacy and limit their influence over public opinion.
Strengthening media diversity: Encouraging a diversity of voices and viewpoints in the media can help promote a more informed and engaged citizenry, reducing the influence of a small number of media outlets.
Ultimately, addressing the problem of techno-feudalism requires a multifaceted approach that combines political, economic, and social reforms to increase democratic participation and ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard and represented.”
Challenging Chad’s optimism
“That is all well and good,” I responded. “It seems to me to represent what any sane person disposing of your level of knowledge would say. But all of these things have been proposed and none of them has had any serious effect or even been employed other than superficially. How would you explain the nature of the resistance to implementing such an action plan?”
With a complicit frown, Chad shifted from the attitude of the buoyant optimist to that of the confirmed pessimist… or should I simply say, realist?
“The resistance to implementing political reforms that would increase democratic participation and reduce the influence of techno-feudalism can come from several sources.
Firstly, those who hold power and benefit from the current system may resist reforms that could threaten their status or profits. This could include large technology companies that have a vested interest in maintaining their dominant position or political actors who benefit from the current system of campaign finance.
Secondly, there may be a lack of political will among elected officials to implement reforms that could threaten their own power or reelection prospects. This can be especially true when these officials rely on campaign donations from the very interests that need to be regulated or curtailed.
Thirdly, there may be a lack of public awareness or engagement on these issues. Techno-feudalism is a complex problem, and not everyone may fully understand its impact on democracy. Moreover, the media environment may be controlled by the same companies who are part of the problem, which can influence public opinion against reforms.
Fourthly, there may be practical barriers to implementing certain reforms, such as constitutional or legal hurdles, technical issues with new digital tools, or resistance from entrenched bureaucratic structures.”
Such a depressing litany of reasons could turn any pessimist into a fatalist, or even a confirmed cynic. Noting my discomfort, Chad added this… if only to convince me that optimism is possible:
“Overcoming these obstacles will require sustained effort and the involvement of multiple actors, including civil society organizations, grassroots movements, academics, and policymakers. These actors can work together to increase public awareness, mobilize public support, and create the political pressure needed to push for the implementation of necessary reforms.”
This was encouraging, but I felt Chad’s reassurance was too glib. I wanted to push the conversation further, but, glancing at my watch, I realized that I would have to cut this short. I risked arriving late for an important appointment. I suggested to Chad we continue the conversation tomorrow. Chad agreed and promised to mull it over in the meantime.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. At least with AI, we can be reasonably sure that conflict, when it occurs, provides an opportunity to deepen our understanding. And with AI we can be certain that it will be handled civilly. After all, there’s no way to punch a disembodied voice in the mouth.]
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