Many conservatives, this one included, have been or are becoming critical of capitalism. Near the end of a recent post, for example, I say that
capitalism is an amoral means to material ends. It is not the servant of society, properly understood. Nor is it the servant of conservative principles, which include (inter alia) the preservation of traditional morality, both as an end and as a binding and civilizing force.
One aspect of capitalism is that it enables the accumulation of great wealth and power. The “robber barons” of the late 19th century and early 20th century accumulated great wealth by making possible the production of things (e.g., oil and steel) that made life materially better for Americans rich and poor.
Though the “robber barons” undoubtedly wielded political power, they did so in an age when mass media consisted of printed periodicals (newspapers and magazines). But newspapers and magazines never dominated the attention of the public in the way that radio, movies, television, and electronically transmitted “social media” do today. Moreover, there were far more printed periodicals then than now, and they offered competing political views (unlike today’s periodicals, which are mainly left of center, when not merely frivolous.)
Which is to say that the “robber barons” may have “bought and sold” politicians, but they weren’t in the business of — or very effective at — shaping public opinion. (f they had been, they wouldn’t have been targets of incessant attacks by populist politicians, and anti-trust legislation wouldn’t have been enacted to great huzzahs from the public.
Today’s “robber barons”, by contrast, have accumulated their wealth by providing products and services that enable them to shape public opinion. Joel Kotkin puts it this way:
In the past, the oligarchy tended to be associated with either Wall Street or industrial corporate executives. But today the predominant and most influential group consists of those atop a handful of mega-technology firms. Six firms—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix—have achieved a combined net worth equal to one-quarter of the nasdaq, more than the next 282 firms combined and equal to the GDP of France. Seven of the world’s ten most valuable companies come from this sector. Tech giants have produced eight of the twenty wealthiest people on the planet. Among the nation’s billionaires, all those under forty live in the state of California, with twelve in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry produced eleven new billionaires, mostly in California….
Initially many Americans, even on the left, saw the rise of the tech oligarchy as both transformative and positive. Observing the rise of the technology industry, the futurist Alvin Toffler prophesied “the dawn of a new civilization,”2 with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But today we confront a reality more reminiscent of the feudal past—with ever greater concentrations of wealth, along with less social mobility and material progress.
Rather than Toffler’s tech paradise, we increasingly confront what the Japanese futurist Taichi Sakaiya, writing three decades ago, saw as the dawn of “a high-tech middle ages.”3 Rather than epitomizing American ingenuity and competition, the tech oligarchy increasingly resembles the feudal lords of the Middle Ages. With the alacrity of the barbarian warriors who took control of territory after the fall of the Roman Empire, they have seized the strategic digital territory, and they ruthlessly defend their stake.
Such concentrations of wealth naturally seek to concentrate power. In the Middle Ages, this involved the control of land and the instruments of violence. In our time, the ascendant tech oligarchy has exploited the “natural monopolies” of web-based business. Their “super-platforms” depress competition, squeeze suppliers, and reduce opportunities for potential rivals, much as the monopolists of the late nineteenth century did. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft control 80 to 90 percent of their key markets and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.
Once exemplars of entrepreneurial risk-taking, today’s tech elites are now entrenched monopolists. Increasingly, these firms reflect the worst of American capitalism—squashing competitors, using indentured servants from abroad for upwards of 40 percent of their Silicon Valley workforce, fixing wages, and avoiding taxes—while creating ever more social anomie and alienation.
The tech oligarchs are forging a post-democratic future, where opportunity is restricted only to themselves and their chosen few. As technology investor Peter Thiel has suggested, democracy—based on the fundamental principles of individual responsibility and agency—does not fit comfortably with a technocratic mindset that believes superior software can address and modulate every problem. [“America’s Drift Toward Feudalism“, American Affairs Journal, Winter 2019]
I can’t deny that rise of the tech oligarchs and their willingness and ability to move public opinion leftward probably influenced my view of capitalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is evidence that, contra Keynes, I am not the slave of some defunct economist.
Will public opinion shift enough to cause the containment of today’s “robber barons”? I doubt it. Most Republican politicians are trapped by their pro-capitalist rhetoric. Most Democrat politicians are trapped by their ideological alignment with the the “barons” and the affluent classes that are dependent on and allied with them.