A decade ago for a brief moment following the 2008 global economic crash, there was a world-wide wave of angry emotion when the unbridled greed of the dominant capitalist elite was suddenly laid bare. Here in the US this engendered a movement called Occupy, which started in Zuccotti Park in the New York City financial district and spread quickly throughout the country.
Occupy, with all its imperfections, was widely viewed as a genuine populist movement. The movement focused on issues of economic inequality and coined the phrase ‘we are the 99%.’ Chris Hedges said at the time in an article on Truthdig that “Occupy articulated the concerns of the majority of citizens.”
Occupy set off a powerful emotional surge that swept across the country and genuinely frightened the elite. The State moved quickly to ensure that Occupy was effectively quashed. Under Obama, the federal government and local police forces joined to dismantle, often brutally, Occupy encampments across the country. No effort was spared in terms of mass arrests, surveillance, and other forms of State powered repression to ensure that Occupy couldn’t metastasize into anything lasting or inspire any actual challenges to power.
As we survey the battlefield we see how political avenues of change are effectively blocked by the power of the State, itself backed by the financial power of the elite. On the right, we see populism as a means of uniting people around genuine, legitimate frustration hijacked by outlandish conspiracy theories, and by a reality TV host for his personal aggrandizement. On the so-called left we have the BLM movement, born out of historical grievances of inequality and powerlessness, focusing on police killings of black and brown-skinned people but which has been rendered harmless as well by corporatism and identity politics.
Are there any means of effecting revolutionary change that remain open to us?
Let’s first consider what exactly is the nature of the power we face and where it comes from. It is our own consumerism that is fueling the predatory capitalist system. Every one of us, with the possible exception of a happy few who are able to live off the grid, is complicit in our own powerlessness. We either willingly or begrudgingly feed our dollars into this system, but either way we do it every single day.
We give our money to the oligarchs, and in return we use the online toys they have developed for us. These toys undeniably make our lives easier. The tech companies have perfected the ways to make them irresistible and even addictive. So we give not only our money to these oligarchs, we also offer up our privacy and even the data we leave behind that allows them to record and profit from every detail of our private lives and thoughts. The unprecedented nature of this power in the hands of the tech companies is laid out clearly in Shosanna Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
In 2017 Amazon bought Whole Foods for 13 billion dollars—or more exactly 13.7 billion dollars. We read about it then in The Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos (personally worth $80 billion back then) who is also CEO of Amazon (worth $400 billion back then) or on Google. (Google, worth somewhere in the vicinity of a $100 billion back then but by now… a trillion dollars?)
In the age of the corona virus and global lockdowns, that news is frighteningly quaint and out of date. The pandemic has opened the way for another mammoth transfer of wealth from regular people to the top of the pyramid. People are in financial crisis—losing their jobs and small businesses.
But the oligarchs of Silicon Valley are coming out of this wealthier than ever:
2020 showed US capitalism’s real priorities.
60 mil claimed unemployment, used up savings, & asked for help. 10 mil face eviction; 8 mil fell into poverty.
But 600+ US billionaires got richer by $1 trillion.
Capitalists buy governments to keep this system, pandemic or not.
— Richard D. Wolff (@profwolff) December 31, 2020
Is this what we want our future to look like—more and more of our world being handed over to a smaller and smaller number of corporations dedicated to efficiently extracting the wealth of the many into the hands of the few?
Silicon Valley-powered social media platforms have become our commons, our place of public discourse—what used to be the public square. Now, in addition to extracting our material wealth, they arrogate to themselves the power to control our speech. However, on the left it has become commonplace to call for increasing levels of censorship, which further feeds the consolidation of power by these corporations as this censorship is being carried out by a small number of the richest men on earth with no democratic accountability. They are not only allowed but cheered on as they make opaque decisions about what is and is not acceptable public speech.
In the short term this censorship may serve the widely perceived just end of discouraging Trump and his supporters, but it also means we are ceding democratic control and accountability to the social media platforms who control our public discourse. History tells us it is a sure thing that this same tactic will be turned against any genuine challenge to elite power.
Liberals like to point out the difference between First Amendment protections of public discourse and private ‘legal’ censorship on tech platforms. Their claim is that private censorship doesn’t really exist. ‘Build your own platform’ they say, ‘if you feel like you’re being censored’. ‘The First Amendment only applies to government censorship’ they add. The disingenuousness of this argument is only too clear. At the moment of this writing, the Twitter-like alternative site Parler.com has been forced off the internet by a concerted action of tech companies, including Google, Apple, and Amazon. Glenn Greenwald has documented the details of this story here.
When it comes to issues of capitalism and wealth inequality, both parties are essentially mirrors of each other. The populist right, in spite of genuine and legitimate frustration at this reality, has been manipulated into a strange form of hero worship focused on a single individual, a reality T.V host.
The liberal left is destroying itself over purity arguments of identity politics and mandated correct speech. It turns on anyone who does not accept its entire identity package of beliefs. It has discovered a new authoritarianism in cancel-culture, all under the beautiful multi-color banner of inclusiveness and anti-racism.
Political third parties who might pose a challenge to our existing system but which don’t take corporate money have been unable to gain any significant traction.
What recourse remains for those who aren’t happy with this outcome?
There is a way to take back our common spaces and work toward genuine democracy and equality. The first step is to understand consumerism as a political act.
It may not be immediately obvious how our spending can be an act as revolutionary as a physical occupation of the commons. But an economic revolution grabs for power right at the roots. Riot police can’t prevent it or disperse it. It can use its acquired economic power to promote political support that it will need to maintain itself. Or to put it more cynically but realistically, it can purchase its own politicians or political parties who would otherwise be influenced to act against it.
We can start by taking back our own consumerism and, like economic ju-jitsu, use our own weakness as a strength to develop a quiet and profound revolution—a revolution which unlike that in the streets can develop almost invisibly to those in power—invisible until it has developed enough power to withstand the inevitable backlash that will come.
What might this mean concretely? It can begin in the tech world, the genuine center of power.
Start by imagining the idea of a people’s Silicon Valley… a crowdfunded power center that fuels cooperative alternatives to each of the increasingly monopolistic power centers—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and all the other titans of our tech world. Our consumerism makes them powerful. It is this that grants them their monopolistic mandate. Likewise, it is our consumerism that can take it back.
We can start with a crowdfunded seed, a commons fund that can fuel democratically managed companies that continue to cater to our material reality. This crowdfunded seed can spawn a virtuous cycle…where consumer dollars no longer feed the extractive corporations but begin instead to fuel democratically managed and communally owned enterprises.
We can begin by supporting and building on an already growing ecosystem of alternative open source technology: the shared and distributed server hosting of the fedeverse, de-googled and privacy respecting cell phone operating systems, and various forms of cooperative ownership and management. And like any good revolutionaries we can also learn by studying our opponents—starting with the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley.
We can make this choice to collectively support the development of a people’s Amazon, a people’s Google. We don’t have to settle for the falsely labeled sharing economy of an Uber or an Airbnb, which forces us into the Faustian bargain of accepting a useful service in exchange for normalizing the essential bondage of precarious gig workers.
We can have equitable, democratically-run people’s versions of the same thing. It’s not too late for us to make this choice. No need in this case for Lenin’s ‘revolutionary vanguard’, which in the end only brings in new masters to replace the old. As consumers who vote with our dollars, euros or other currencies, we can choose to have our money flow into this new ecosystem. Worker owned co-ops on a global—not just a local—scale can flourish, and we would be both their customers and their owners. No masters would be needed.
What would the first steps of this revolution look like? Only one part of that is clear: it would need to be a collective effort of brainstorming and engagement. Many people from the tech world have already begun developing alternatives to existing services. But these alternatives can only thrive if people commit to supporting them. All of these projects face an uphill battle to gain the recognition needed to grow on a scale that can compete with the titans.
Perhaps, following the model of Silicon Valley, there needs to be some process for a presentation of these ideas and a mechanism for gaining commitments of support from the community. Crowdfunding can support fledgling projects of all types; why not a system of crowdfunding specifically for cooperative enterprises? We could join to support enterprises that begin with a certain set of baseline characteristics—democratic ownership and management, transparency, and democratically decided allocation of profits. In this crowdfunding venue presentations are made, and the crowd decides.
If the filtering process of crowdfunding has proven itself in this and other contexts—why not employ it as a direct way to retake possession of our online lives, our purchasing, our privacy and our public discourse, everything that makes up the public commons and which has been claimed as the private property of a small and unspeakably wealthy elite.