Would Bernie’s supporters let him take on Silicon Valley?
If Bernie Sanders became president and was then tough on the growing power of the Internet industry, would the progressives currently singing his praises still support him? With this post, I am neither endorsing nor indicting the candidacy of Senator Sanders himself, but as his campaign is built on a theme of holding Wall Street and corporations accountable, I have to wonder if his supporters have contemplated the idea that, as president, if he were to wield Teddy Roosevelt’s sledgehammer, this means Silicon Valley and its capitalists, too.
After all, Google alone is among the largest corporate tax dodgers in the country; it now consistently ranks as in the top ten biggest lobbyists; it is among the federally subsidized; it has wriggled out of anti-trust investigations and paid its way out of criminal indictments for its executives; part of the businesses strategy is based on invading your privacy; the company is racing toward a trillion-dollar valuation without being profitable while its top execs live among an elite fraction of the one percent; it doesn’t employ very many people; and the company built a considerable portion of its market share by exploiting other people’s labor without permission. Google isn’t the only Internet company to resemble these remarks—they’re just the biggest and most pervasive.
But we’ve seen what happens when the government tries to tell the Internet industry what to do, haven’t we? The industry rallies the masses by scaring the hell out of everyone with messages about free speech and a broken Internet and the end of democracy itself. And you’re right in the middle of a Candy Crush game, dammit! (On a side note, watching this particular campaign season, the idea that the “Information Age” has been a boon to democracy is a very tough sell. If it really is possible to break the Internet, somebody show me how.) Okay, back to the point …
I’m not at all surprised that Sanders’s message is popular with a lot of 18-29-year-old progressive voters. Like the humane antithesis of Trump’s cultish message of intolerance, the Sanders campaign is certainly about being fed up—fed up with the fact that the system is rigged—and this frustration cannot be denied. But how holistically this political base is willing to look at the rigging is another matter. When Sanders says “Wall Street”, how does that translate among his supporters? Does it consider the networked economy of the 21st century?
Given the extent to which the sanctity of the Internet is hugely important to this same demographic, is anyone paying attention (including Bernie?) to the fact that the industry which has accelerated wealth consolidation, which has produced paper billionaires out of the most speculative—and often predatory—investments, and which evangelizes an ethos of operating above the rule of law is led by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Uber, Spotify, etc. Like it or not, many of the same people who say they want a guy like Sanders to take the fight to Wall Street are trapped in a dichotomy in which simply sharing that message on social media is telling Wall Street to keep doing exactly what it’s doing. Or consider another example …
With an infusion this January of $2 billion in private equity from China, Uber is now valued at over $60 billion, making it bigger on paper than Dow Chemical, General Motors, or Time Warner. Although there are many drivers currently operating, the company technically employs almost nobody, and it has recently invested some of its VC money in the future of driverless cars. In fact, in recent announcements, Uber founder Travis Kalanick has stated that if they can eliminate the driver altogether, the price of using services like Uber will become cheaper than owning a car. In theory, he may be right; but that statement alone implies a dramatic, multi-decade transformation to our economy and our infrastructure. This may include ground-transportation services consolidated down to just one or two dominant companies by the same mechanisms that enabled Amazon to become the category killer in product fulfillment. But what exactly do we think that sixty-billion-dollar speculation is about, a ride-hailing service? Yeah. So, when Bernie says he wants to tax Wall Street and pay for infrastructure, how does the current capitalist bet on Uber’s future change that conversation? We’ll “tax” Wall Street to pay for a public subsidy of a ground-transportation paradigm that is still owned by the 1%?
What the tech-utopian promise and the Sanders campaign have in common is that they both reflect frustration with the status quo, and both will frame issues in the language of democratization; but where the agendas differ is considerable and seems to highlight the two opposing streams in which the millennial generation in particular is standing. Sanders voters want to make college free and healthcare more affordable while the Internet industry wants to make doctors and professors, to a certain extent, obsolete. Sanders voters want to level the playing field while the Internet industry wants to own the field, the ball, the bat, and the photos you took while you were playing. Sanders voters want to make America less corporate, the Internet industry is the ultimate corporatization (see networking) of everything. Sanders voters talk about American jobs while the tech-utopian’s rhetoric has confused the mantra of “disruption” with Schumpeter’s creative destruction. Sanders voters cannot possibly say they want any president to go after Wall Street today and not include the hugely speculative bets on the technological future this same constituency says it wants in the palm of its hand.
It’s not that we cannot or should not have the best future technology can provide, but if a Bernie Sanders (or even Hillary Clinton) were to take this economic agenda to the doorstep of Silicon Valley, and that industry responds with its standard barrage of messages that the Internet and our rights are “under attack”, will this segment of the electorate keep faith with its stated mission, or will they get fooled again?
© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.Follow IOM on social media: