opinion

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Watch Out! Here Come the ‘Woke’ Tech Oligarchs.

Many of the new titans like all the right progressive things—so long as those things don’t interfere with the bottom line.

opinion

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Once the rich protected themselves by aligning with Republicans who would protect their property from high taxes and their firms from regulation.

Some still do—notably the Koch brothers—but this breed of right-winger is gradually losing out to more progressive tilted plutocrats. In 2016, according to Open Secrets, three of the four largest billionaire political donors—hedge fund manager James Simon and his wife Marilyn, Michael Bloomberg, and currency speculator George Soros—titled progressive. This reflects a broader social trend.

Overall the GOP continues to slightly outpace Democrats among the ultra rich, but most of the big conservative donors such as Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Rupert Murdoch, and Irvine Chairman Don Bren are well into their seventies or in their eighties. The trend belongs, clearly, to the progressives. Between 1980 to 2016, support for Democrats from the 0.1 percent has tripled, and donors in the nation’s wealthiest zip codes overall now give more to Democrats than Republicans.

Take Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican of convenience who last week announced he would invest $80 million into Democratic campaigns this fall before teasing, yet again, a possible presidential run of his own. Bloomberg’s usual causes are not those of traditional social democracy—after all this is the guy who proclaimed what New York really needed was more billionaires, and who beta-tested in New York City the businessman-as-better-political-leader pitch he then watched with dismay Donald Trump take all the way to the White House—but issues less threatening to the plutocracy, such as climate change and gun control.

The buyout of mainstream progressivism has changed its nature. Big donor-driven candidates—who still dominate the party’s leadership ranks, even as small-donor powered insurgents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez test that arrangement, at least in low-turnout elections—are less concerned with the fate of auto or communication workers than they are with issues of environmental regulation, identity, and culture.

Facebook President Sean Parker, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Salesforce.com Chairman Marc Benioff, Mark Zuckerberg, and the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, are all relatively young men devoted to the progressive cause—at least those parts of it that don’t threaten their bottom lines.

The Trump Effect

With his horrendous comments and awful actions, Trump has accelerated wokeism among the wealthy and their minions. This oligarchic drift has been building for years, as wealth has shifted from traditional resource and manufacturing industries to software, media, finance, and entertainment. In sharp contrast to energy firms, home-builders, and farmers, the regulatory state does not threaten the bottom lines of these industries, as long as it refrains from breaking up their virtual monopolies.

Indeed, as researcher Greg Ferenstein suggests, the new oligarchs favor an active state that will subsidize worker housing or even a guaranteed minimum income, and keep their businesses off the hook for providing decent benefits to their ever expanding cadre of gig-economy serfs. He points out that the former head of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was a strong supporter of Obamacare and that many top tech executives—including Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk—favor a government-provided guaranteed annual wage to help, in part, allay fears about what happens to most of the workforce as their industries and jobs are “disrupted.”

Geography plays a role here as well. With the biggest concentrations of wealth now in the most “progressive” regions—the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Seattle—moguls must operate in an environment dominated by fervent anti-Trump social-justice and green advocacy. Many big tech employees—nearly 40 percent in the Bay Area, by some estimates—are noncitizens, with little reason to be concerned about how the wealth in these corners is, or is not, spread across the nation.

So it’s no surprise that woke employees at Microsoft, horrified by the brutalism of Trump’s immigration policies, have decided not to cooperate with ICE. Not to be outdone, Amazon workers compare their company’s cooperation with immigration authorities to IBM’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. Similarly Google workers are refusing to help with drones used to combat terrorists, while Apple is actively working to make it difficult for police to break into phones used in committing crimes, including in the aftermath of the San Bernardino terrorist massacre.

So powerful, and self-referential, are these companies—and their highly compensated workers—that they are increasingly willing to deny even the idea of national interest when that does not suit their political notions. Unlike businesses that worry about competition or mass opinion, these oligarchic companies can demonize half of the country with impunity. At the end of the day, even Trumpians depend on these systems unless they want to look at Chinese alternatives.

The New Controllers

Since Trump’s election, many progressives have pushed the idea that we are on the cusp of a return to traditional authoritarianism, as portrayed in books like George Orwell’s 1984 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet the real model for future tyranny may be more that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which portrays a society run by a biologically conditioned scientific and technological elite.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

In Brave New World, the masters are not hoary Stalinoids or angry right-wing fundamentalists, but gentle, reasoned executives. The Controllers preside over a society where social classes are well-defined, and only those at the top—the Alphas—live in comfort. Families have been abolished except on reservations for misfits, and people widely enjoy access to pleasurable pharmaceuticals and unconstrained, commitment-free sex in the city.

Huxley’s future eerily resembles the one favored by the oligarchs, who are now paying women workers to freeze their eggs as they aim to create an elite Alpha class without children or property, to be serviced by the low-wage Deltas, Gammas, and Epsilons of Huxley’s world—bused in from the suburban fringes.

The Controller’s power, first and foremost, depends on implanting information. In Brave New World contrary ideas are dismissed not as breaking the party line but as simply absurd or even pornographic. Today’s woke oligarchs do much the same by controlling both information and culture. Bloomberg is a prime example but he’s a pauper compared to Bezos, the world’s richest man owning one of the nation’s most influential newspapers.

Tech sofa change in recent years also helped Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate buy The New Republic, and run it into the ground before selling it. More recently Laurene Powell, the left-leaning widow of the late Steve Jobs (net worth $20 billion), scooped up The Atlantic for a nonprofit that will compete with more traditional competitors who still, sadly, have to make money.

Meanwhile, Google is promoting journalism by robots while also planning to invest $300 million in favored outlets. What could go wrong?

The Agenda

In the emerging regime, here’s what’s not important: personal autonomy and privacy. A controlled and woke society starts with access to people’s thoughts, something critical to the advertising-driven businesses of Google and Facebook and, increasingly, also to Apple and Microsoft. It’s important to remember what Google’s former Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt once told CNBC: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The digital revolution, which had so much promise for democratizing information, appears to be hyper-concentrating media both geographically, on the coasts, and through pipelines controlled overwhelmingly by firms like Facebook, so that a change in policy there can undermine even established media, and Google, which controls over a third of all on-line advertising and a remarkable 90 percent of global search. As The Guardian recently put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”

These patterns are reinforced by students shaped by our ideologically homogeneous education system. The censorious instinct now intrinsic to universities, particularly the elite ones, shapes the thoughts of the highly educated workers critical to these companies. Controllers like those at Facebook increasingly seek to “curate” views, largely conservative, they don’t like, according to former employees. Often this censorship is being carried out under guidance developed by largely progressive groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has too often labeled anyone outside its ideological “safe space” as racist bigots. Over 70 percent of Americans, notes a recent Pew study, believe social media platforms “censor political views.”

Ultimately the oligarchs, reacting to their woke workers and constituency, seek a control over basic behavior in ways even the snoop-crazy Chinese would admire. Facebook already admits to having patented technology that would allow them to snoop on their users, although they deny using it. Netflix, the oligarchical company that by some estimates is now worth more than any of the movie studios, recently imposed controls over what people do on sets of movies they finance. That includes rules that ban asking for phone numbers of co-workers or even looking at people for more than five seconds, an innovation even more intrusive than those of Huxley’s Controllers.

Hypocritical Oaths

Stanley Bing’s recently released Immortal Life gives a riveting version of a near-future society shaped by our tech oligarchs. In his not-so-distant future, government has largely been replaced by a cabal of superannuated tech moguls—effectively Global Controllers—who shape societal views, implant devices in human brains, and dominate every aspect of the economy. Democracy hasn’t just been constrained; it’s been excised.

Right now the rising power of the Controllers has been obscured by the Trumpian counterrevolution, a peasant rebellion supported by a less than charming alliance of old economy moguls, angry white males, and more than few xenophobic racists. But over the long term, history is bending toward the woke oligarchy—particularly as the old generation conveniently dies off.

If these well-heeled progressives have a vulnerability, it’s their extreme hypocrisy. In California, the epicenter of the resistance and elite wokefulness, Silicon Valley oligarchs and their shrieky Hollywood counterparts are fervent in their embrace of progressive values. But, as a new report from Chapman University shows, the prevailing oligarch-friendly California economic agenda—hostile to suburbs, fossil-fuel energy, and manufacturing—has proven unequal and particularly damaging to minorities.

Not without reason has the maverick environmentalist Mike Shellenberger called California “the most racist” state in the union. Far from Malibu and swanky haunts of the cultural elites, the bulk of Los Angeles suffers among the highest poverty rates of any metropolitan areas. Cost-adjusted wages for middle-class workers, Latinos, and African Americans in Silicon Valley have actually dropped during the recent economic boom there.

Perhaps there’s no better illustration of hypocrisy than the Disney company. The once conservative bastion-turned-promoter of woke values has been led by Robert Iger, a fantastically well-compensated self-defined “progressive,” who has made much of denouncing President Trump’s immigration policy as “cruel and misguided ” and taking standard progressive positions on guns and the Paris accords. Yet, as Bernie Sanders has pointed out recently, Disney workers are generally poorly paid, many on the verge of poverty. Even middle-class workers have been given the shiv: The company infamously replaced its IT workers with outside contractors shipped in from India.

Against the Oligarchs

This unprecedented agglomeration of wealth and power needs to be opposed both by conservatives and traditional progressives. It won’t be easy. In the presidential run, The Washington Post took hard aim at Bernie Sanders before turning, albeit less successfully, against Trump. More recently Amazon and its minions forced Seattle’s progressives to back down from a plan to make the company pay more taxes. Majority Leader Charles Schumer opposes higher capital-gains rates, warming the cockles of venture capitalists and the new economic royalists, some of whom are his contributors.

Even on green issues, the famously pious oligarchs demonstrate remarkable levels of hypocrisy. These firms have bought enough allowances and built solar or wind facilities to claim “carbon neutrality.” But such offsets, as the new Chapman report reveals, mostly shuffle greenhouse gases around and don’t actually reduce global emissions. Apple keeps its California carbon footprint down by making all its products abroad, mostly in China—which ends up spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than if they built them here.

Ultimately the only way to stop the new Controllers and challenge their hypocrisy will be to meet them head on. Companies like Google need to be broken up, as many on both right and left agree. This position has even been adopted by the generally liberal Boston Globe which warned that, “Never ever in the history of the world has a single company had so much control over what people know and think.”

But it’s not just Google—which spends more on lobbying than any other private company—or Amazon, which has quadrupled its government spending since 2014. This relatively new focus on inside Washington influence-peddling, combined with their oversized influence on critical technologies, our media, and overall economic system makes these firms a threat to the pluralism essential to democracy, unlike any we have seen in the last century. Their vision presages a society where few work and a handful control the nation’s riches. To avoid a rebellion, the “redundant” are supposed to be paid off with some sort of government allowance.

Americans need to oppose this evolution and fight for the flourishing of a grassroots and more dispersed economy now, before the oligarchs brave new world is fully and finally here.