Accelerating Soft Totalitarianism
A reader in France e-mails:
The situation is heating up in France. We don’t have the “passeport sanitaire” and are now being denied entry to public services, bus, trains, restaurants etc. Our girls were especially sad they could no longer go to the public beach at the city lake.I’m organising a protest against these passes, but here one must ask the government permission days/weeks in advance in order to protest the government … cause “liberty”. If not, jail time and massive fines are in order. Ok … fine. I was tossed multiple times yesterday between the police and the mayor’s office who each tell me the other is in charge of protests. You think les citoyens who stormed the Bastille got authorization from the King before they took to the streets? I’ll keep at it today.Many of the pieces are in place and the people are primed for control. It’s going so fast!
The harm is compounded when the loss of speech rights is followed by restrictions on the ability to participate in online economic activity. Within days of the Trump-Parler cancellations, most of the finance tech stack (Stripe, Square, PayPal, Shopify, GoFundMe, and even enterprise SaaS company Okta, which wasn’t used by anyone in the events of January 6) declared they were canceling the accounts of “individuals and organizations connected to the [Capitol] riot.”
Now PayPal has gone much further, creating the economic equivalent of the No-Fly List with the ADL’s assistance. If history is any guide, other fintech companies will soon follow suit. As we saw in the case of speech restrictions, the political monoculture that prevails among employees of these companies will create pressure for all of them to act as a bloc.
When someone mistakenly lands on the No-Fly List, they can at least sue or petition the government for redress. But when your name lands on a No-Buy List created by a consortium of private fintech companies, to whom can you appeal?
As for the notion of building your own PayPal or Facebook: because of their gigantic network effects and economies of scale, there is no viable alternative when the whole industry works together to deny you access.
Kicking people off social media deprives them of the right to speak in our increasingly online world. Locking them out of the financial economy is worse: It deprives them of the right to make a living. We have seen how cancel culture can obliterate one’s ability to earn an income, but now the cancelled may find themselves without a way to pay for goods and services. Previously, cancelled employees who would never again have the opportunity to work for a Fortune 500 company at least had the option to go into business for themselves. But if they cannot purchase equipment, pay employees, or receive payment from clients and customers, that door closes on them, too.
What the woke Left doesn’t seem to realize is that the sort of economic desperation they seek to inflict on their enemies is exactly what produced Trump in the first place. In the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, many in Washington and Silicon Valley were too busy blaming social media to consider how the policies they had supported in favor of globalization and free trade had hollowed out the industrial base that many working-class Americans depended on for good jobs. Trump channeled the anger of these desperate voters to win crucial swing states in the Rust Belt. These disaffected voters resented the cadre of managerial, media, academic, and governmental elites who acted as if they had a monopoly on truth, morality, and decency. Trump, the outrageous, uncouth billionaire with ridiculous hair, was the perfect avatar of their desire to stick it to them.
Trump is gone, but the resentments he exploited to come to power remain. And now we have this unholy alliance of tech and government coming together to ban “misinformation” and “hate,” which they — and they alone — get to define. What an ideal formula for spreading and deepening these preexisting resentments.
If we continue down this path, a far more dangerous demagogue could emerge. I implore my successors at PayPal and other Big Tech companies to stop throwing kindling on the fires of populism by locking people out of the online public square and the modern web-based economy. Silenced voices and empty stomachs are fuel for the very extremism you claim to oppose.