THE RISE OF THE TECH ROBBER BARONS
A select few built the technology of the modern age. Now, armed with grotesque wealth, they want to control the future.
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In the wake of the destruction of the Civil War, a new country emerged. The clash between the industrial North and the agrarian South resulted in a cleared playing field and a relentless sprint to meet the emerging economic order. Industrialization had become the order of the day and, in order to compete, the United States needed to catch up to other nations which hadn’t been hindered by internal conflict. To do this, the government shoveled mounts of tax dollars to a handful of corporations and individuals who could line the landscape with telegraph wires and lace the earth with railroad tracks. These bodies, along with those who could supply the energy needed for this miraculous transition, became the new economic elite and largely guided America into the 20th century.
History is very clear about what happens when this type of shift occurs. The consolidation of capital in a few hands results in predictable outcomes. It begins with growing empires in which the wealthy stunt or gobble up potential competition, includes conspicuous consumption and the construction of lavish estates, creates a system of non-governmental foundations and bodies they control outside the purview of democracy, and eventually posits a new problem: what exactly do you do when you have all of the money you will ever need to afford literally everything and still have more left over?
Capitalism supplies an easy answer. You purchase the government. You hold sway over political affairs in order to profit yourself and, as you consider yourself a master of the universe and more fit than others, you begin to construct the future after the future you have already constructed.
People, especially Americans, struggle to understand the past, much less apply it to their present circumstances. This digital age we live in is obviously immaterial, so we ignore that this is as much infrastructure as are tracks and wires and pipelines. We rarely reckon with the fact that, once more, in an effort to meet the future, we have redistributed our public wealth to another generation of robber barons. And, to our detriment, their machinations are flying almost completely under the radar of the body politic.
Currently, the yawning, disturbing wealth gap between the kings of Big Tech and the rest of us has created a crisis. Not only has the world been wired, in ways both noticeable and invisible to the naked eye, to their advantage and profit, but once more their vast concentrated wealth has given them leverage over our politics, our economy, and virtually every corner of our lives.
And if that isn’t bad enough, some of them are determined to do more than just profit themselves. Yet again, having built the present, they are dead-set on controlling the future.
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Peter Thiel has long had political ambitions. His background and education have long been tinged with both libertarian and reactionary ideology. His worldview has been shaped by philosophy and political theory that posits extreme individual independence - at least when it comes to the economic elite, like himself - paired with an extreme need for control by the powerful.
Thiel made his billions helping to create the modern infrastructure of the digital age, including how purchases would be completed and in backing the nascent Facebook project. When it came to Facebook, Thiel recognized the potential for profit, but also the effect it would have on our politics and society. It would serve as a fantastic disruptor in almost every way.
Big Tech values little more than disruption. After all, its emphasis on creation according to the whims of its architects is completely dependent on the old order being disturbed and dismantled, allowing a new generation of smarter, more talented, more worthy elites to take over.
In the same vein as reactionary provocateurs like Steve Bannon, Thiel quickly saw Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 as an incredible opportunity. Trump stood out as an outlier, a different type of politician unencumbered by political norms and uninterested in protecting established institutions. And, to boot, his appeals to his base were useful in preparing them for wildly new outcomes.
Thiel and others like him in the burgeoning National Conservative movement are interested in tearing the current order asunder. They are pursuing a new conservative course that eschews laissez-faire economics for strategic interventionism that prioritizes helping allies while punishing opponents. Conversations that were once relegated to behind-the-scenes and kept off-the-record focused on a plan to dissemble the administrative state and replace it with a new, techno-infused regime, but, as of late, those conversations are becoming more and more public with every passing day.
Even more troubling, this movement is tinged with white supremacist ideals and dog-whistles and a growing desire for authoritarianism. Though allies of Thiel hide behind “theoretical philosophy,” they are very clearly enamored with the idea of ushering in an “American Caesar” who would dispatch the current regime and rule with almost unquestioned authority. To National Conservatives, like past authoritarians, we are living in a failed state that requires extreme measures.
As covered here, they are turning to authoritarians like Viktor Orbán and his illiberal state of Hungary for inspiration. The ideology of Big Tech, in which the past must be disrupted and then replaced, has gone from the realm of creating digital infrastructure to seeking overwhelming power and influence over the entirety of society.
Following in the footsteps of robber barons of old, Peter Theil has used his excess wealth to enter the political arena. By flooding tens of millions of dollars of his own money into the coffers of senate candidates J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, he has essentially purchased his own avatars for use in government. Vance and Masters are both former employees of Thiel’s and mentees, and their agendas and philosophies are little more than echoes of the strange circles Thiel now traffics in.
What’s more, many of Thiel’s allies in Big Tech are beginning to bankroll these candidates and others, pushing their chips into political action committees that, thanks to Citizens United, are without limits. An entire economy has emerged in which the exorbitantly wealthy can put forward candidates in their thrall and dedicated to carrying out the agenda they ascribe to. To add to this, an entire under-current of dark money through cryptocurrency operations with virtually no oversight whatsoever. And what’s even more disturbing is that these candidates are not only winning, but that they are quickly dominating the GOP and shifting their ideology.
As I have talked about at length on this site and elsewhere, the standing political order is exhausted. Neoliberalism has reached a crossroads in which it will either collapse and give way to a new order or else reinforce itself through authoritarianism. The money currently is on the latter, and history shows us that these robber barons will almost always side with fascistic movements in order to protect their wealth and power.
We have reached another crucial moment, an echo of the robber baron past. Again, we like to imagine ourselves apart from history while we continually ignore the lessons we should have learned many times over. The redistribution of public wealth has created a crisis of almost unthinkable proportions, and the disturbing nature obscures an even more disturbing fact: we literally bankrolled this oppression ourselves.
What Thiel and other reactionaries are seeking and creating is a cultural and political movement to replace the dying order and, if it is allowed to coalesce, it will be disastrous. The white supremacist underpinnings, the evangelical motivations, and the emphasis on the wealthy as the dutiful stewards of the world will create a nightmarish future. And, even more, the technological apparatus that we made possible will become a murderous prison.
We must recognize this moment as a reiteration of a continuing and predictable cycle. To simply glance at Thiel’s operations and shrug is to gift him, and others like him, more time and space to grow. The scourges of Nazism and Fascism of the 20th century found their funding and support among these classes. As uncomfortable as it is, we must look to those eras for understanding as we begin to reckon with the developing authoritarian future.
If we are to escape a similar, or even worse fate, we must coalesce, as the Progressive Movement did in the early 20th century, and demand that government rein these robber barons in while it still can. This must serve as a rallying cry and the definitive crusade of this new century. Anything less will be disastrous.