Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

The totalitarian capitalism of tech giants should trump your fears of populism

Carl Mortished.

Nick Ray

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London

Of all the worrying things about populism, the most disturbing of all is that it doesn't really exist. This terrifying anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant, protectionist ideology that is sucking up votes like a giant vacuum cleaner is merely a phantom that obscures our view of the new corporate tyrants that govern our world.

The old political fight between left and right is still there; you just can't hear it for the ranting populist rhetoric and fake journalism. The artillery has been muffled in the struggle between big business and big government and we don't see the armies because we don't recognize who is on which side. Is U.S. President Donald Trump fighting in the corner of blue collar Rust-Belt workers or Wall Street bankers?

Story continues below advertisement

Britain's Labour Party, tilting heavily to the left, has published an election manifesto that calls for the nationalization of railways, power companies and the Royal Mail. It would probably get approval from Marine Le Pen, the defeated far-right National Front candidate in the recent French election. The clue is in Labour's strangely archaic list of strategic national assets. Do the railways, the power companies and the postal service still represent the commanding heights of a modern economy?

The stock market tells us that the world's most powerful economic assets are a couple of media businesses (Google and Facebook) and Amazon, a retailer. In today's politics, the power of capital hides behind emoticons, silly YouTube cat videos and Google's syrupy slogan "Don't be evil."

Beneath the cozy veneer lies an amoral world of ruthless exploitation, political manipulation and gargantuan personal vanity. That's the view of Jonathan Taplin, a West Coast academic who has written a book, Move Fast and Break Things; the title is a quote from Mark Zuckerberg and it sums up the Facebook founder's business strategy (if you don't break anything, you are not moving fast enough).

Mr. Taplin, who started life as a roadie for Bob Dylan and the Band and then moved into the movie business, has an axe to grind. Much of the book is an account of how the tech businesses stole the copyright revenues of thousands of artists, record producers and musicians. It's a familiar lament of the music fraternity; their intellectual property was first thieved by Napster, the music file sharer and later hoovered up and spat out by Google and Spotify. But the statistics trotted out by Mr. Taplin are astonishing: In 1999, the U.S. recorded-music industry was worth $20-billion (U.S.) in sales, but thanks to Napster and other pirates that later emerged, the revenue plummeted to $7.5-billion by 2014. Newspapers suffered a similar fate with ad revenues falling from $66-billion in 2000 to $17-billion thanks to the role of Facebook users as republishers and disseminators of free news, pirated news and, of course, fake news.

The wholesale plundering of intellectual content by the tech giants could be glossed over (and frequently is by Silicon Valley preachers) as simply the collateral damage of a disruptive technology. But this isn't the 21st century version of Ford's Model T, wrecking the lives of blacksmiths. The sheer scale of Amazon's market power over retailing would not be possible without political collusion. Mr. Taplin explains how Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, was able to secure – through intense lobbying of Republican senators – the passage of the Internet Tax Freedom Act, a bill that prevents any government body from imposing Internet-specific taxes. It enables Amazon to leapfrog state sales taxes by avoiding a bricks and mortar presence on the ground while precluding any attempt to tax the firm in its disembodied state in the ether.

When, like Google, you have a market share of 80 per cent, you ought to attract political attention, regardless of whether the company is saintly or sinful. But in the political climate of the United States today, monopoly per se is not a sin. On the contrary, it is merely a measure of success. According to Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, monopolies are the only businesses worth having. Mr. Taplin reckons Mr. Thiel is the high priest of the libertarian philosophy that has infected the Republican Party, and he is now making inroads into the White House as an adviser to Mr. Trump. For the PayPal boss, technology disruption is not just about money, but changing the way society is organized. He wants to escape the political process and "the unthinking demos that guides so-called social democracy."

Mr. Thiel's cultish devotion to Ayn Rand's weird political philosophy of individualism and his projects to end the process of aging (for the rich and famous) might be seen as eccentric if they didn't fuel a perverse glorification of entrepreneurship as the solution to all the world's problems. Successive presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have pandered to the Silicon Valley tycoons even as they crush competition, create monopsonies that narrow distribution channels and make available their platforms to child pornographers and racists.

Story continues below advertisement

The U.S. Department of Justice has not even started to get tough on the tech giants, which leaves it to the European Commission to do the job, if they can find the time and resources. It's not populism that we should fear; it is totalitarian capitalism and it's coming to a website near you.

Want to interact with other informed Canadians and Globe journalists? Join our exclusive Globe and Mail subscribers Facebook group

Report an error
About the Author

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist and freelance consultant based in the U.K. With a career spanning investment banking, journalism and consulting for global companies, he was for many years a financial writer and columnist for The Times of London. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨