Parler, the alternative to Twitter, is being strangled by the tech giants. Apple and Google removed the app from their app stores. Amazon removed the company from its web-hosting service. These companies claim these actions serve the public interest.
Whatever one thinks of last week’s events, this action in concert marks a milestone. In recent years, the private sector has adopted more activist stances with respect to partisan political issues. But here we’re witnessing the privatization of a fundamental political function: Determining the proper balance between free speech and public safety.
I’m not surprised by this development. The neoliberal ideology that has become dominant among elites fuses the technocratic arrogance of the center-left establishment with convictions about the superiority of market mechanisms popular in the center-right establishment. Both establishments have anti-democratic tendencies. The left-leaning one wants governance by enlightened expertise; the right-leaning side wants as little governance as possible. So it makes sense that they’d adopt this “solution” when faced with the danger that populist anger and distrust will become socially disruptive, even violent.
We’ve been on this track for a long time. The Ford Foundation under McGeorge Bundy pioneered para-governmental interventions in civic life during the 1960s. The Gates Foundation is more powerful than the public health officials in most sovereign nations. But never before has the private sector taken possession of the First Amendment of the Constitution in such a blatant way, serving as the functional arbiter of who can and cannot speak in public.
The term for this kind of governance is oligarchy. Take a look at the boards of directors of Amazon, Google, and Apple. For the most part the seats are held by very rich people who have interlocking economic interests that, naturally, mean interlocking political interests. They are corporate jet people far beyond the reach of democratic control. And they are now setting policy about the terms and conditions of political debate, not on the margins, but with respect to some of the central issues in our polarized society.
This, too, is part of a long-term trend. Kelly Loeffler, the failed Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia, had been appointed to a vacant seat by governor Brian Kemp. Her only apparent qualification for office was that she is the wife of a very rich man who donates to Republicans. Most of the major conservative institutions in Washington, D.C., are heavily influenced by billionaire donors.
The Democratic Party and its affiliated institutions are less visibly dominated by oligarchs, in part because the infrastructure is more varied and more thoroughly integrated into establishment institutions. But Biden’s campaign was well fed by mega-donors, and some finance their own national campaigns.
I fear the events last week in D.C. are accelerating our society’s turn toward oligarchy. Unfortunately, the trends have been evident for a long time. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has become less a democratic republic than the financial and military foundation for a globalized commercial empire, of which the men and women on the boards of Google, Amazon, and Apple are central players. I worry that they think it makes sense that they should control the United States, not voters, who may be confused about the purpose of governance in the twenty-first century, thinking it a matter of national interest, when in fact it concerns sustaining something much more important: the rules based international order and “diversity,” the American cutting edge of an imagined global civilization that transcends differences and is open to purely technocratic governance.
At the same time, large swaths of the American public have been atomized. Local political parties, unions, churches, Elks clubs, VFW halls, local newspapers, and other mediating institutions that allowed middle and working-class Americans to gain political agency have evaporated. Political consciousness is mediated through national media and its narrow circle of pundits and commentators whose ideas (and often livelihoods)flow from some of the same sources that fund Super PACs.
Our movement toward oligarchy cannot be defeated by right-wing populism, important though that form of political rebellion may be going forward. Those on the left who recognize the dangers of over-concentrations of wealth and power also need to resist. I’m not a free speech absolutist, but we must not out-source the essential political question of what speech is forbidden. It is past time to recover our political agency.
One place to start will be to drop the notion that these tech companies function in an open market for their services. They are more like the three networks of yore, which earlier generations recognized needed political supervision to ensure fair access. We should impose fairness obligations onto today’s virtual platforms and hosting service. This approach would allow those kicked off to sue and empower judges to hand down punitive judgments. The political process and our courts must decide hard questions about the First Amendment when it clashes with the common good, not the oligarchs.
Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.
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