Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has, in true Keynesian spirit, recently unveiled her plan to “break up” the big tech monopolies of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, among others. The critics are accusing Warren of socialism, but in fact, this policy misses the mark entirely and is anything but socialist in nature. The socialists here at Red Liberty would like to reply to these accusations and propose our alternative to Warren’s “solution” to this problem.
To the accusers of “socialism”, we can recall when Warren quite explicitly stated “I am not a democratic socialist”. Indeed, such a plan to “break up” the tech giants which hold a virtual monopoly over our lives is but a temporary fix. Contrary to the ideals of socialism, this “solution” finds its roots not in the ideas of industrial democracy (socialism) but in Keynesian reformism. As socialists, we feel that these measures do not go far enough.
In her blog post Warren said,
“Today’s big tech companies have too much power – too much power over our economy, our society and our democracy… They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. … That’s why my Administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition – including breaking up Amazon, Facebook and Google.”
We at Red Liberty have hardly anything good to say about these tech giants in regards to ethics. We know that Facebook and Google are champions of the business model of data capitalism, a business model that sells people’s private data, stores it indefinitely and uses it in order to further the aims of mass surveillance. Such a business model is wholly contrary to the people’s right to privacy, a right that many users do not even realize they are giving up. We know that Apple is a King of proprietary “closed source” software, a form of software that deprives the user of their freedom to really own and control their own devices and digital lives. Not to mention the Chinese sweatshops by which iPhones are manufactured and the Ugandan mines in which the rare earth elements used in iPhones are extracted. Amazon’s de facto monopoly is quite self-evident, and working conditions are equally deplorable.
Warren is completely correct when she says “Today’s big tech companies have too much power – too much power over our economy, our society and our democracy”. These companies are indispensably necessary in day to day life. They are almost universally used by everyone, and yet we find that they are under the near absolute control of a very small minority- a small minority that sits in a board room and is not held accountable to the interests of the workers or the public at large. Such a minority in a traditional capitalist enterprise, we know, is elected by wealthy shareholders under the principle of “one share, one vote”, giving a monopoly to the richest and thus, working almost entirely in the interests of profit alone. Surplus wealth (i.e. profits) produced by the working people in a traditional capitalist enterprise, or more specifically, by the business model itself which uses data indiscriminately as a commodity, belongs solely to the owners of the industry. The goal of capitalism is thus the enrichment of the owners of industry, even though and often do we find, that it is to the detriment of society as a whole. Wealth inequality is inevitable under such a model, as is the concentration of power into the hands of a few rich men and women. The perpetual threat such a model poses to society and to democracy is quite self-evident.
We socialists look at this inherently undemocratic, anti-social business model, and at these giant companies that are public in nearly every sphere of social life but on paper, and claim that the solution to this problem, this excess of power in the hands of an extremely small, extremely wealthy minority, this threat to our society and to our albeit limited political democracy, is precisely the democratization of the enterprise. Warren, in true capitalist spirit, does not see this as a viable solution. For her the solution is, in accordance with the ideas of Keynesianism, the “breaking up” the big tech companies. But history, as we know, tells us that the severing of one of these great heads by the state will, over time, lead to many more to come in its place. Such wounds to a big company will inevitably heal like a Hydra, and the problem Warren is attempting to fix will inevitably rear its head up once again. In time, more monopolies will spring up from this severed head, and the cycle will continue. The lack of democracy in industry will not improve, and neither will the threat the owners of big business pose to “our democracy”. That is, after all, the problem Warren seems to have with these tech giants.
The so-called “platform utilities” model to be applied to these businesses is not industrial democracy or public ownership, but, as Warren explains it,
“These companies would be prohibited from owning both the platform utility and any participants on that platform. Platform utilities would be required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users. Platform utilities would not be allowed to transfer or share data with third parties.”
We can recall how AT&T was broken up in 1982 for precisely the same reason that Warren today proposes the breaking up of these tech giants. If we are honest in our analysis of history, anyone can see how within a period of 37 years AT&T (the new version), Verizon, and Century Link (all companies of nearly the same stature as the original AT&T bell system) came to the place they now occupy. The head was cut 37 years ago, and in its place 3 new heads of the Hydra of big business were born. Warren seems to not mention this when she refers to America’s long standing tradition of breaking up companies when they become too big, even when she mentions the case of AT&T by name. Perhaps we need only more of Warren’s Keynesian tactics. Shall we break up AT&T, Verizon, and Century Link again? Should we break up Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook only to have this cycle of undemocracy and the concentration of power over social life in the hands of a small minority of the ruling class continue? This seems to be what Warren is advocating.
The democratization of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and co. would mean these companies served the public interest, were operated for the people and by the people, as opposed to operating for the private interest of a handful of capitalists. The social good of these tech giants would be the primary focus, not a side effect of their business model whose goal was profit alone. This would mean the end of big data capitalism, the end of selling people’s private information. It would be a massive blow to mass surveillance, to shady business practices, and to the control the billionaire class has over our society, to political and social life. Google and Facebook would work in the public interest, would operate as representatives of the public interest through genuinely democratic mechanisms. Trade secrets would be abolished, and transparency would prevail. These companies would not hire teams of lawyers to dismiss and dodge allegations of unethical or illegal activity, for this would be a thing of the past!
Such a democratization would further the birth of new enterprises operating in accordance with the principles of industrial democracy and eventually perhaps, lead to the democratic planning of large sectors of the economy. Innovation will spring from competition as it always does, we socialists have no intention to rid the world of incentives to further innovation but on the contrary, to expand them. But innovation will also spring forth from openness, the abolition of trade secrets, cooperation, coordination, and democracy itself. Those who did not innovate would be removed from their positions, and those innovations which did not satisfy the public need would likewise be removed, as is the tradition already. Business efficiency would increase, the ecological impact of these companies be substantially reduced. Democratization would be a blow to the monopoly proprietary software giants hold over the lives of billions of tech users. The News would read of the “opening” of closed source, proprietary programs and operating systems. Democratization would put an end forever to the dangers Warren brings up, and not merely fix it for a few decades as Warren’s plan would inevitably do. Democratic control would mean power to the people, for the tree of liberty in the modern age can either expand or die. The ruling class is fiercely against breaking up these tech giants, but it is even more horrified by the idea democratization. This, we feel, is the only viable solution.
This is what the socialists at Red Liberty have to say about the things Warren has said.