Woke Capitalists As Mini-Chinas
Capitalism and communism, opposed in ideology, turn out to be compatible in the real world. And perhaps the conceptual opposition is also collapsing in the West, as capitalism goes woke and sneaker commercials become indistinguishable from AOC campaign materials except by their production values.
If China’s communists have appropriated capitalism, in “woke capitalism” the capitalists have appropriated socialism. This is applied both internally, as companies focus on the ideological re-education of their employees with diversity training and the like, and externally, as those companies relentlessly if implausibly portray themselves as the agents of an egalitarian future. The new voter laws in Georgia will fall, if they do, to challenges not from the Justice Department or the courts, but from Major League Baseball, Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola, which operate at once as profit-making concerns and political organizations. Rather like mini-Chinas.
This is why the Chinese social credit system will be the way our American oligarchs, corporate and state, will control us. Let me explain.
Now that I’m temporarily living within the borders of the European Union, every time I go to a new website, I am confronted with the fact that the website wants to insert cookies into my browser. Europe has a law — a good law — requiring websites to get consent before installing cookies. We Americans simply never know what is being put into our browsers to track us, without our consent. I suppose most people here accept the cookies, but the point is they at least have that choice, because the laws force surveillance capitalists to tell consumers what they are doing, and to get permission to do it.
It’s a stark reminder of how business tracks us all the time, to try to sell us things. From Live Not By Lies:
Consumerism is how we are learning to love Big Brother. What’s more, Big Brother is not exactly who we expected him to be—a political dictator, though one day he may become that. At the present moment, Big Brother’s primary occupation is capitalist. He’s a salesman, he’s a broker, he’s a gatherer of raw materials, and a manufacturer of desires. He is monitoring virtually every move you make to determine how to sell you more things, and in so doing, learning how to direct your behavior. In this way, Big Brother is laying the foundation for soft totalitarianism, both in terms of creating and implementing the technology for political and social control and by grooming the population to accept it as normal.
This is the world of “surveillance capitalism,” a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff, a former Harvard Business School professor. In her 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff describes and analyzes a new form of capitalism created by Google and perfected by Amazon and Facebook. Surveillance capitalism hoovers up detailed personal data about individuals and analyzes it with sophisticated algorithms it to predict people’s behavior.
The aim, obviously, is to pitch goods and services tailored to individual preferences. No surprise there—that’s merely advertising. The deeper realities of surveillance capitalism, however, are far more sinister. The masters of data aren’t simply trying to figure out what you like; they are now at work making you like what they want you to like, without their manipulation being detected.
And they’re doing this without the knowledge or informed permission of the people whose lives they have colonized—and who are at present without means to escape the surveillance-capitalists’ web. You may have given up Facebook over privacy concerns, and may have vowed never to have a smart device under your roof, but unless you are a hermit living off the grid, you are still thoroughly bounded and penetrated by the surveillance capitalist system.
“This power to shape behavior for others’ profit or power is entirely self-authorizing,” Zuboff told The Guardian. “It has no foundation in democratic or moral legitimacy, as it usurps decision rights and erodes the processes of individual autonomy that are essential to the function of a democratic society. The message here is simple: Once I was mine. Now I am theirs [italics added].”
Why should corporations and institutions not use the information they harvest to manufacture consent to some beliefs and ideologies and to manipulate the public into rejecting others?
In recent years, the most obvious interventions have come from social media companies deplatforming users for violating terms of service. Twitter and Facebook routinely boot users who violate its standards, such as promoting violence, sharing pornography, and the like. YouTube, which has two billion active users, has demonetized users who made money from their channels but who crossed the line with content YouTube deemed offensive. To be fair to these platform managers, there really are vile people who want to use these networks to advocate for evil things.
But who decides what crosses the line? Facebook bans what it calls “expression that . . . has the potential to intimidate, exclude or silence others.” To call that a capacious definition is an understatement. Twitter boots users who “misgender” or “deadname” transgendered people. Calling Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce,” or using masculine pronouns when referring to the transgendered celebrity, is grounds for removal.
To be sure, being kicked off of social media isn’t like being sent to Siberia. But companies like PayPal have used the guidance of the far-left Southern Poverty Law Center to make it impossible for certain right-of-center individuals and organizations—including the mainstream religious-liberty law advocates Alliance Defending Freedom—to use its services.[i] Though the bank issued a general denial when asked, JPMorgan Chase has been credibly accused of closing the accounts of an activist it associates with the alt-right. In 2018, Citigroup and Bank of America announced plans to stop doing some business with gun manufacturers.
It is not at all difficult to imagine that banks, retailers, and service providers that have access to the kind of consumer data extracted by surveillance capitalists would decide to punish individuals affiliated with political, religious, or cultural groups those firms deem to be antisocial. Silicon Valley is well known to be far to the left on social and cultural issues, a veritable mecca of the cult of social justice. Social justice warriors are known for the spiteful disdain they hold for classically liberal values like free speech, freedom of association, and religious liberty. These are the kinds of people who will be making decisions about access to digital life and to commerce. The rising generation of corporate leaders take pride in their progressive awareness and activism. Twenty-first century capitalism is not only all in for surveillance, it is also very woke.
Nor is it hard to foresee these powerful corporate interests using that data to manipulate individuals into thinking and acting in certain ways. Zuboff quotes an unnamed Silicon Valley bigwig saying, “Conditioning at scale is essential to the new science of massively engineered human behavior.” He believes that by close analysis of the behavior of app users, his company will eventually be able to “change how lots of people are making their day-to-day decisions.”
Maybe they will just try to steer users into buying certain products and not others. But what happens when the products are politicians or ideologies? And how will people know when they are being manipulated?
Buy the book and read the whole thing. It’s coming, this merger of consumer sales and social control. This is why it matters massively if Woke Capitalists use their market power to compel certain political outcomes. Again, consider Amazon’s decision to stop selling books that put forward a critical point of view on transgender ideology. I have explained here that this is perfectly within Amazon’s legal rights, but given Amazon’s stranglehold on book retailing, its decision has the effect of powerfully discouraging that any books like that will ever be written. This is left-wing illiberalism, tout court.
Left-wing illiberal democracy won’t come to us via pure autocracy, as in China. It will come from the merger of elites in government, business, and other institutions, and their enforcement of their ideology through the market, and via technology embraced by surveillance capitalists — and by the rest of us, as the cost of participating in the modern economy.
Unless we can stop them.