For four years America has shuddered watching Donald Trump, the poor man’s Benito Mussolini, doing his Il Duce imitation. Certainly, Trump's timely political demise should be celebrated, but we cannot ignore a far bigger long-term threat to democracy—one that may be further accelerated by the new regime in Washington.
Under the kindly eyes of Uncle Joe, we soon may find ourselves living under an updated version of the fascist “corporate state”— an alliance between political leaders and a handful of ultra-rich, ultra-powerful companies that increasingly dominate the economy and culture. This new American-style corporate state reflects not a conspiracy but the politics of a society with unprecedented concentrations of wealth and power.
These firms, based largely in the tech industry, have benefited massively from the lockdowns and now account for nearly 40 percent of the value of the Standard and Poor index, a level of concentration unprecedented in modern history, As the giants get even more gigantic, up to 30 percent of America’s small businesses face bankruptcy and the ranks of the poor have grown by 8 million.
The original fascist corporate state developed in Italy protected private property but also sought to use the private sector to support the political ends of the state. We are seeing that broad pattern now with the rise, particularly in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, of what is heralded as “stakeholder capitalism,” where private companies, rather than simply seeking out profit, genuflect to the left’s social agenda on issues of race, gender and green virtue.
To be sure, the values American corporations appear to be advancing now are very different than those in Italy nearly a century ago. But the linkage between private and political power, accelerated by Trump’s toxicity, is similar. Biden raised record sums from the corporate elite, notably the tech oligarchs and their Wall Street allies. Among financial firms, communications companies and lawyers, Biden outraised Trump by 5-to-1 or more. Besides providing money, the tech giants actively helped direct Biden’s campaign and volunteered their digital savvy, with Mark Zuckerberg himself financing election day operations in many critical states, something sure to titillate the tinfoil-hat wing of the GOP.
Like many Americans, tech moguls and elite financiers rightly despised Trump’s crudity and nativist memes, but they were more immediately motivated by self-interest—starting with their need to maintain a pipeline of immigrant workers to collusively keep their labor costs down and to keep maintain trade and commerce with China. Biden also had the virtue of being able to stop real progressives, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who openly challenged oligarchal power.
The employees of big, connected Ivy League law firms, many with close ties to the tech industry, are well represented in the transition team. Biden’s early appointments—-including the proposed candidates for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, and defense secretary, Michelle Flournoy— profited from clients among the tech oligarchs and other major corporations.
Not surprisingly the new regime will likely favor controls on information that fit their own interests and inclinations. Despite suggestions to the contrary by the New York Times, history suggests any meaningful effort to rein in the oligarchs is now dead on arrival. There will be little restraint as platforms like Facebook and Google accelerate their attempts to “curate” (read: control) news—or in Amazon’s case, remove books or videos—to minimize or exclude those who violate their world-view.
What we see now is something of an American version of the Chinese system of power concentration and control—the leading fascist model of today. In America this will be achieved not through government but by allowing a handful of private companies to control information. Indeed Richard Stengel, head of the Biden transition team for media, has openly advocated controls on “hate speech,” a conveniently vague term. Such an approach is widely supported by organizations like the German Marshall Fund as well as prominent “liberal” legal scholars who openly praise China’s censorious approach.
This notion of thought control has been emerging for at least a decade on issues like climate change and more recently the pandemic. It also was all too evident during the recent election as platforms like Facebook and Twitter made assertive editorial judgements to cut off stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop even as they allowed equally absurd anti-Trump conspiracies to travel widely.
This new emerging American corporate state provides a perfect way for the oligarchs to consolidate power and boost their profits. Corporate lobbyists, working for Wall Street, tech and other giant companies all but assure that Biden, like Barack Obama, will wink and nod as Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google acquire or crush competitors, continuing the erosion in anti-trust enforcement that’s happened under both parties. Monopolistic control is critical to maintaining the enormous profit margins and unprecedented wealth of the oligarchal class.
Similarly, journalists at the New York Times and other mainstream outlets are increasingly vocal about advocating for further censorship, which, of course, would have the benefit of cutting off insurgent competitors.
The renewed call for draconian climate change policies will also help the oligarchy, who may genuflect at the Green New Deal’s socialist cast but really prefer to push subsidies for their renewable fuels investments and electric car schemes, as the radical filmmaker Michael Moore, among others, has documented. The green economy has already spawned its first mega-billionaire, Elon Musk, whose core businesses feed largely on regulatory and tax policies that favor his products. In the future expect other oligarchs happy to take advantage of centrally imposed scarcity to make fortunes under the pretext of “human survival.”
With Trump defeated, the relatively benign seeming corporate state now represents the biggest threat to our democracy. The question is whether there will be enough pushback to oligarchic domination from both big city progressives, like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and some members of the House, along with the growing number of conservatives who are now more skeptical of corporate power.
This new resistance can’t expect much cheerleading from mainstream media or the social media platforms, as occurred under Trump. But in the long run, opposition to the consolidation of wealth and information power needs to find a way to link progressive concerns about wealth concentration with those of conservatives backed increasingly by the working class and small shopkeepers who feel threatened by higher taxes and onerous regulations.
We cannot hope to have a functional (as opposed to a nominal) democracy when property and information are controlled by a small number of companies tightly allied with political power. This is not either a right-wing issue or a left-wing one, but a matter of protecting our republic before it is too late.