Like canaries in a mine, two iconic figures of the right and the left sing in unison about the dangers of big tech and the importance of breaking them up.
Something strange is happening. Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist of President Donald Trump, and Robert Reich, the Berkeley professor who served President Bill Clinton, are singing from the same hymn sheet. On the surface, these two characters could not be more dissimilar. Bannon is a former naval officer who rose to eminence in Goldman Sachs before creating Breitbart and breathing fire into the right-wing populist movement. Reich is a Berkeley liberal who has been agonizing over growing inequalities of income, wealth and political power. Like Romeo and Juliet, both Bannon and Reich are falling in love with the idea of breaking up big tech.
In March, the Financial Times held the FT Future of News conference. Editor Lionel Barber interviewed Bannon who declared, “Facebook takes your stuff for free and sells it and monetizes it for huge margins. Then they write algorithms that control your life.” Bannon castigated the audience for not asking one tough question when Mark Zuckerberg showed up, claiming the Facebook boss “sounded like a first year associate hired in corporate development.” The audience in New York was only emulating its betters. As this author observed on Gandhi’s birthday this year, even American senators kowtow to Zuckerberg instead of holding his feet to the fire.
In his many interviews, Bannon has been arguing how most people have been reduced to serfs. The party of Davos, Bannon’s catchy name for a global elite, benefits enormously from the liquidity of central banks, the impunity of big banks and obscene asset price bubbles. The young, “the deplorables” and “the little guys” are now frozen out of the system. They have few prospects of work, little chance to get their feet on the property ladder and minimal opportunities for upward social mobility.
Reich concurs with Bannon. In his tour de force for The Guardian, Reich argues that “big tech has ushered in a second Gilded Age.” He points out that how “America’s Gilded Age of the late 19th century” led to “a raft of innovations — railroads, steel production, oil extraction.” However, Reich also cautions that this age “culminated in mammoth trusts owned by ‘robber barons’ who used their wealth and power to drive out competitors and corrupt American politics.” He worries that phenomenon is repeating itself.
Reich rightly observes, “Facebook and Google dominate advertising. They’re the first stops for many Americans seeking news. Apple dominates smartphones and laptop computers. Amazon is now the first stop for a third of all American consumers seeking to buy anything.” This means that most, if not all, small players get wiped out in this new winners-take-all economy.
As per Reich, this concentration of power is leading to “two big problems.”
First, it is stifling innovation. The rate of formation of new job-creating businesses has halved in the US since 2004. Why should anyone start something, live frugally and struggle when life in big tech has food cooked by chefs, fancy yoga classes and high six-figure salaries? Also, big tech has “sweeping patents, data, growing networks and dominant platforms,” not to mention expensive lawyers, unlimited pockets and oligopolistic, if not monopolistic, tendencies.
Second, Reich argues that big tech has too much information, too much money and too much power. Already, Facebook has employed a “political opposition research firm to discredit critics,” he says. The Berkeley professor asks, “How long will it be before Facebook uses its own data and platform against critics? Or before potential critics are silenced even by the possibility?”
Incidentally, this author has repeatedly made the same point as Bannon and Reich. In an article published in 2016, the author contended that the “inverse relationship between income inequality and social mobility—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Great Gatsby” curve—has come to define the US.” As inequalities in income, wealth, health, education et al. keep waxing and opportunities for social mobility keep falling, America is fast becoming “a society of tsars and serfs.”
WAITING FOR NEW TEDDY ROOSEVELTS
Bannon may be reviled and vilified, but he is bold and brilliant. Now that he is out of the White House, he has been proposing innovative solutions to some intractable problems. Earlier this month, Bannon appeared at the Oxford Union and argued that bankers who blew up the global financial system in 2007-08 should face criminal prosecution. When asked about big tech, Bannon declared, “Facebook should be broken up. Google should be broken up. We should take the data and drop it down to a public trust.”
Reich once served Clinton, who is infamous for ties to Wall Street. Now, the professor has parted ways with his former political master. In his article on big tech, Reich describes how the US fought back against the robber barons. He recounts how Teddy Roosevelt used antitrust laws to bust railroad trusts and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. The US Supreme Court backed Roosevelt and the rest is history. Reich argues. “It is time to use antitrust again.” He makes the case for breaking up “hi-tech behemoths, or at least require they make their proprietary technology and data publicly available and share their platforms with smaller competitors.”
Reich acknowledges that it might not be politically feasible to resurrect antitrust right now. Republicans rather like big business. Democrats get a lot of cash from big tech with progressive candidates collecting nearly $1 billion for the recent midterms. In a society where the worth of a human being is measured in dollar terms, both parties are scared of big tech. More importantly, the vast majority of people are addicted to products of big tech and do not realize the extent of their serfdom.
Yet Bannon and Reich, iconic figures of the right and the left, are the vanguard of a popular backlash about to happen. A number of people are starting to resent their serfdom bitterly. They intuitively realize that markets collapse when masters own all assets and indebted serfs can merely sell labor for a pittance, that too if they are lucky. Politics collapses too because the gulf between the haves and have-nots becomes too deep and too wide.
It would be foolish to argue that big tech is in danger today. It holds the commanding heights of the world economy. Yet the sentiment against it is growing. Countries are worrying about their sovereignty. Citizens are worrying about privacy. Journalists are worrying about survival. And small businesses are worrying about staying solvent. Not only Americans, but also others are aching for new Teddy Roosevelts who will take on big tech and break its back on a barrel.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.