Why Is Capitalism Under Attack from the Right?

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.

The Age of Memes

Memes have always been with us, though they weren’t called that until 1976. According to Wikipedia, a meme

is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

There’s really nothing new in all of that, except for the “scientific” name that has been applied to it.

No, what’s really new is the rapidity with which particular ideas (i.e., unbaked hypotheses, lies, rumors, and propaganda) spread and seem to take hold without having been examined carefully. Consider, for example, the ridiculous idea that the Betsy Ross flag is a “hurtful” symbol of slavery: from Colin Kapernick’s addled brain to myriad media outlets (including the “social” variety) and thence to the mouths of some presidential candidates in a matter of days. (I would say “to the brains of some presidential candidates”, but their ready acceptance of the meme suggests a dire shortage of gray matter, if not brains that have been conditioned to serve nefarious ends.)

I return to “Peak Civilization“:

In the West, rational inquiry seems to have peaked in the early 1960s. I needn’t remind you of the subsequent descent: mobs, riots, the din of “entertainment”, quasi-religious movements from hippiedom to “climate change”, and on and on into the night.

(In the same vein there is neo-Malthusianism-cum-environmental extremism, which in its mildest form wants some kind of population control and in its most virulent form wants the extinction of human beings.)

Not that rational inquiry has always (or ever) ruled the day, but the decline since the 1960s is striking to me.

What happened in and since the 1960s? Take the idea that humankind is doomed to extinction by “climate change” — a fringe idea, perhaps, but not an uncommonly held one.  Take the shrill and many-fold “social justice” movement, which encompasses so many “wrongs” and “victims” that it would be easier to describe it by listing its exceptions (mainly straight, white, conservative males of British and northwestern European descent whose sexuality has always been tightly controlled).

The meme that “change” (always beneficial, of course) can be accomplished by often-hysterical shrillness and mob action (now virtual as well as actual) got its start with the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s. Adults in responsible positions (e.g. Walter Cronkite, LBJ, and Clark Kerr) encouraged the hysteria directly or by giving in to it. Rare was the person in a powerful position who tried to squelch it; Mayor Daley (Sr.) of Chicago was one such person, and for his sins he became a hated figure in his own (Democrat) party.

And so it came to pass that hysteria in the service of “social justice” became the norm. And then it came to pass that the instruments for spreading and amplifying hysteria were invented and widely adopted (personal computing, the internet, blogs, “social media”). The existing tools of mass communication (radio, movies, television) were swept along in the rising tide of hysteria, the owners and operators of such tools being no less anxious than stoned collegians to prove their “social consciousness”. In fact, the hysteria has spread to the owners and operators of major industrial firms, who swim in the same “elite” circles as their peers in the information-technology complex.

All of this was built on foundations laid insidiously by the public-education monopoly and the professoriate. Their time has finally arrived. And so “public” opinion (where “public” means overt) is dominated if not ruled by what I have elsewhere called the internet-media-academic complex.

The thing about memes, since long before they were called that, is their staying power. A long-standing meme (or constellation of them) — such as obeisance to Judeo-Christian norms in America — can’t be conquered by mere reason. It takes a new meme (or constellation of them) — such as “hope” and “change” and “social justice” — to overrun them. The human animal needs memes to occupy his mind when he has attained a degree of physical security that gives him the luxury conjuring six impossible things before breakfast, instead of having to concentrate his energy on catching or growing his breakfast. (One of the Democrat presidential candidates, albeit one on the far fringe, epitomizes the zaniness that flourishes among the spoiled children of capitalism.)

Do I mean to say that it would take a cataclysm of some kind, a catastrophe so dire that people would abandon political memes in their need to cooperate for subsistence, if not survival? Perhaps, but I am not a full-blown pessimist. Despite decades of brainwashing by the internet-media-academic complex, there is a healthy conservative movement in the country — healthier, in fact, than at any time since the country was essentially conservative (i.e., until 1963). Human nature, in other words, is a powerful force that no amount of brainwashing (or coercion) can eradicate (though it may channel it in undesirable directions for a time).

My hope, and I must call it that, is for the essential neighborliness of the vast majority of Americans to reassert itself among “ordinary” people, who will tire of the hysteria pouring forth from the internet-media-academic complex. Does half of America really want to be on the “other side” (a term that has been applied to the political divide only in this brief century)? I think not.

Though the uniting force need not be a cataclysm (e.g., a devastating EMP attack, a missile strike on U.S. territory), it must be a dramatic event of some kind. Perhaps it’s as simple as replacing Donald Trump in 2021 or 2025 with a less polarizing figure (but a conservative one nonetheless).

A final thought: Though the internet-media-academic complex is mainly responsible for the the present state of political polarization (and leftist aggression), I don’t want to cast aspersions on information technology itself.  Polarization is no more caused by information technology than are traffic deaths caused by automobiles, gun deaths caused by guns, or war caused by weapons. People drive cars, shoot guns, and fight wars. The problem is, as it always is, a small minority of the people — a minority that is striving for power and dominance by using words instead of weapons.

What Ike Also Said

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell address on January, 17, 1961, warned famously that

we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

Later in the same speech he also issued a warning that has been largely forgotten:

[I]n holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

The scientific-technological “elite” insidiously regulates almost every aspect of our lives — if not directly, then through the choices we are allowed to make in our purchases of items ranging from homes to can-openers, from travel to medications, from schooling options to vacation choices, and on and on and on. The same “elite” is responsible for foisting upon Americans and much of the Western world the immensely costly fraud known as “climate change”. The same “elite”, operating under the unwarranted protection of the First Amendment, is responsible for stifling facts and ideas that are inimical to its agenda.

Given that America is slipping toward second-class status as a military power, Ike’s first warning — to the extent that it was heeded — proved counterproductive. Sadly, his second warning was ignored until recently — and it may be too late to stem the tide against the scientific-technological “elite”.

Namby-Pamby Conservatism

That’s what’s on display in a post by Rich Logis at The Federalist; for example:

[T]ens of thousands of political content creators live in fear that what they produce, whether on a commercial or personal level, will be subject to Big Tech’s arbitrary and baffling speech standards.

I am not looking to put tech companies out of business. What I am looking to do, and what I hope CMIC personalities will consider, is to leverage the free market principles our side claims to hold so dear. There is an untapped opportunity for those who have built immensely visible and influential brands within the CMIC to operate as their own YouTube, where freedom of speech and opinions will thrive, rather than be subjugated to authoritarian-minded arbitration.

I have tried several of the “conservative”* alternatives to Facebook, etc., and they are laughably amateurish. But putting that aside, the possibility that “conservative”* alternatives might eventually become widely known and used doesn’t excuse what amounts to state-sponsored censorship by Big Tech. It is a grave mistake to condone such censorship by erroneously invoking the First Amendment.

Big Tech must be brought to heel before, like public schooling, it becomes an ineradicable instrument of leftist indoctrination.
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* “Sneer quotes” because the sites that I’ve tried are intellectually incoherent.

Power Is Power

Most libertarians and conservatives have a reflexive — and negative — reaction to proposals for government intervention to “fix” private-sector problems. The attitude is well-founded, in that many serious private-sector problems (e.g., soaring medical costs, dependency on tax-funded subsidies) are the result of government intervention.

But there are times when government intervention –were it politically feasible — could alleviate serious private-sector problems. Consider two such problems: (1) suppression of conservatives and their views on campuses and in public fora owned by private companies (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter); (2) soaring prescription-drug prices caused by Big Pharmacy (not the drug makers of Big Pharma, but the middlemen like CVS who manage prescription-drug plans for the insurance companies with which they are often entangled).

The academic-information and prescription-drug complexes — to name just two — are already exerting government-like power. In fact, it is far more power than was actually exercised by the “trusts” wrongly targeted for government intervention (“trust-busting”) during the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s. (They were providing new and invaluable products at low prices, thanks to economies of scale.) Contemporary trusts, unlike the ones of yore, are in fact the products of government interventions on behalf of powerful private interests, which is why it will be hard to bring the academic-information and prescription-drug complexes (and others) to heel.

It won’t be easy, but it is possible. And badly needed.