Tech companies and the capitalists that own them have shown that they can intervene on-demand to dramatically alter the terms and conditions of public debate. While many were celebrating Donald Trump’s indefinite account suspensions on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram, some on the Left raised concern over the future implications of Big Tech’s increasing power and influence.
The censoring and deplatforming of Trump and his campaign are being widely celebrated by liberal antifascists who consider this to be a victory. And while the deplatforming of a proto- or neo-fascist is not a bad thing in and of itself, it remains necessary to investigate the reasons why Big Tech took this action, whose interests they serve in doing so, and what we might expect in the future.
The class of techno-capitalists, we should remember, are not in the last instance motivated by public well-being. Rather, as with all industries being driven by competition, their primary motivation lies in the accumulation of capital. The constant reinvestment of capital to make more profit leads to compounding growth, which as David Harvey argues, “becomes a never-ending spiral of endlessly expanding accumulation in space and time.” For us, that spiraling means that they must expand into every facet of our lives. In other words, we must continue consuming at increasingly higher amounts.
It is in this context that Big Tech has, among its top priorities, two primary endeavors in the sphere of consumption. The first priority is the commodification of our time, as evidenced in the form of the instantaneous consumption economy of Netflix, Snapchat, TikTok, and others which attempt via complex algorithms to hold our attention as long as possible until our consumption of their material becomes so pervasive that it is never ending, such as binge watching Netflix or constantly scrolling through a Twitter feed. The second priority lies in the commodification of information, as evidence in the form of an all-pervasive surveillance capitalism which collects more data than it can ever use and profits from selling that data to other capitalists, advertisement companies, and state or private actors. These two processes of commodification, along with the monopolization of the technology sector, set the foundation for techno-capitalists to hold broad and unchecked control over the choices presented to us in everyday life.
The ability to deplatform a sitting President of the United States is, above all else, a show of force and a demonstration of the power they hold over public communication and debate. That, along with the “sanctioning” of Parler by Google, Apple, and Amazon, is representative of the ability of Big Tech to organize and take direct action together in order to enact their will unto the political direction of the United States.
Big Tech intervenes out of concern for their own self-interest, not the public good
It is important to remember that Donald Trump is not merely one of the drivers of the current crisis but a product of it. Despite the coordinated effort by the Democratic Party to blame all the nation’s problems on Trump, his rise to power, along with his subsequent electoral defeat, is a result of the long-term crisis of capitalism that has intensified over the last several years.
There are two concepts which are helpful in framing the relevance of this crisis upon the recent events. The first is understanding the contradiction between the state and international monopoly capital, and the latter’s global hegemony. The second is the role of reactionary neoliberalism in destabilizing the nation-state, which that same international capital relies on to promote its interests.
As Torkil Lauesen thoroughly argues in his recent book The Principal Contradiction, neoliberalism is in a serious crisis. Deindustrialization, widespread privatization, the erosion of the social safety net, imperialist intervention causing migration crises, and increasing inequality has brought neoliberalism to a dead end. Culminating in the crisis of ‘07/’08 was the rise of the primary contradiction between nationalist governments and neoliberalism. Or, in other words, between the nation-state and international monopoly capital. When neoliberalism eroded the welfare state and caused crises of financialization and banking, it created the context for demands for the state to come back and intervene. However, the comeback of the state this time was not in a social-democratic form, but the kind of nationalist state as advocated for by right wing populists such as Trump, Narenda Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, and Marie Le Pen.
The economists Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik put this another way:
In short, the ideology of neoliberal capitalism was the promise of growth. But with neoliberal capitalism reaching a dead end, this promise disappears and so does this ideological prop. To sustain itself, neoliberal capitalism starts looking for some other ideological prop and finds fascism. This changes the discourse away from the material conditions of people’s lives to the so-called threat to the nation, placing the blame for people’s distress not on the failure of the system, but on ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority groups, the other that is portrayed as an enemy. It projects a so-called messiah whose sheer muscularity can somehow magically overcome all problems; it promotes a culture of unreason so that both the vilification of the other and the magical powers of the supposed leader can be placed beyond any intellectual questioning; it uses a combination of state repression and street-level vigilantism by fascist thugs to terrorize opponents; and it forges a close relationship with big business, or, in Kalecki’s words, “a partnership of big business and fascist upstarts.”
Trump once received “world leader status” from Twitter, making him immune to censorship. This was a sign to some mistaken liberals that his power was veering towards absolute authority. Yet in the decisive action after Jan. 7 by Big Tech to act as a class in the suspensions of both Parler and Donald Trump, this is transnational monopoly capital asserting itself as the primary and decisive side of that contradiction. This is in line with the analysis of Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik who argue that contemporary fascism will not look like the fascism of the 1930’s because of the hegemony of international finance capital that does not want the world partitioned into “economic territories of rival powers” and instead wants “the entire globe to be open to its own unrestricted movement.”
In addition to keeping the world market open to its free movement, monopoly capital requires a stable nation-state to serve as a tool for its bidding. It is here that Nancy Fraser’s framing of neoliberalism’s two blocs in her book The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born is helpful. Progressive neoliberalism, as demonstrated by the multicultural politics of Presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, arose as a strategy to manufacture consent for a neoliberal politics of distribution by posturing as progressive with their politics of recognition. Hence, why Obama advanced formal legal rights such as gay marriage while simultaneously exploiting the crisis of ‘07/’08 to offer enormous bailouts to big banks while 10 million Americans lost their homes. The progressive neoliberal bloc stood in stark contrast to the “reactionary neoliberal” bloc that combined neoliberal economic policy of distribution with reactionary politics of recognition, as evidenced in the xenophobic, racist, and sexist social agenda of the Republicans. Those reactionary politics of recognition are expressed in the rhetoric around protectionism and nationalism, and against neoliberal “elites,” despite Trump baiting-and-switching in office to enact neoliberal policy.
As a reactionary neoliberal, as opposed to the progressive neoliberalism of Joe Biden, Trump’s conservative politics of recognition, along with his extremist base, have proven to be too politically unstable for the likes of transnational monopoly capital, and specifically to Big Tech, who, among other things, require a stable nation-state to advance their interests abroad in pursuit of dominance over the global market.
When Big Tech removed Trump’s accounts, they did so, not in the interest of the public good, but in the interests of their own pursuit of capital accumulation. That is why, as others have pointed out, they will allow Trump to tweet about enacting violence upon people of an entire nation such as threats of mass murder against Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, yet they will censor him when he causes social unrest at home and threatens the inauguration of their top-pick for President who will undoubtedly act more in accordance with their interests. Imperial aggression and foreign intervention serves their interests, social unrest at home destabilizing the nation-state which they depend on does not.
Preparing for the inevitable shutdown of left-wing digital infrastructure
So what lessons can be learned from this? Firstly, since the crisis of capitalism will continue to worsen, the contradictions within society will continue to sharpen. This means that, despite the liberals’ best attempts to pin the nation’s problems and polarization single-handedly on Trump, the material conditions giving rise to both of those phenomena will continue onwards. In addition, the contradictions between capitalism and the environment will mature, causing mass displacement and further social unrest. This will likely result in the “show of force” intervention that we saw this week in an attempt for Big Tech and international monopoly capital to seize control of the means of public discourse to suppress social unrest.
Secondly, as the conditions for people decline, and their consciousness rises, as we’ve already seen with the re-emerging popularity of socialism, the left will continue to grow and organize. It is not unlikely—should the left present a real and present danger to the neoliberal social order—that Big Tech capitalists will make major interventions in the public sphere to censor, sanction, and suppress left-wing movements and online organizing infrastructure.
While liberals are celebrating the censorship of Trump, the left should be concerned with the demonstration of near-absolute power exercised by the FAANG class (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) who now assert their dominance as demonstrated in part by their composition of 15% of Standard and Poor’s 500, which is an index of the largest private companies across the United States.
It is no understatement to call their power over our lives nearly-ubiquitous as evidenced by their constant and ever-increasing commodification of our time and information, their ability via complex algorithms to shape public opinions and create effective demand, and, as displayed recently, their ability to instantaneously shut down digital infrastructure and steer the political direction of the country in their favor. This time, solely out of their own self-interest, they shut down the Right. Next time, they can, and very well might, shut down the Left.
This might just be a sign that in a world where we are nearly entirely reliant on digital infrastructure to connect, debate, and organize—and specifically, an infrastructure created and controlled by monopoly capital—that we redirect our strategies towards building in-person networks that can withstand the “invisible hand” of Big Tech when it inevitably considers an increasingly insurrectionary Left to be the real threat to their social order.