Facebook Escapes Again
The world has changed radically over the past 200 years. At the same time, some of the most critical institutions in the most powerful nations either haven’t noticed the change or are so committed to an archaic worldview that they can no longer adapt to conditions they refuse to understand. They appear to be hoping that the bad dream will soon go away and that the plethora of wonderful consumer products, delivered by Amazon within 24 hours, will keep us sufficiently distracted.
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In a legal ruling that will set back the struggle to restore some order to the world of what deserves to be called antisocial media, The New York Times reports that a federal judge “on Monday threw out antitrust lawsuits brought against the company by the Federal Trade Commission and more than 40 states.” The Times quotes the judge’s claim that “‘monopoly power’ is a term of art under federal law with a precise economic meaning.” It turns out that recognizing what a monopoly looks like, feels like and acts like is not a matter of human perception but of legal “art.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
For broad-minded people, the effect on survival and well-being of people participating as producers or consumers in an economically organized system. For narrow-minded people, including judges, decisions affecting the price a customer pays.
The Times quotes Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who counters the court’s conclusion that it isn’t “clear under our current antitrust laws that Facebook has a monopoly in online networking.” He calls it “a flabbergasting assertion given Facebook’s firm grip over consumers, their data and the social media market.” The judge reasoned, in the narrowest way possible, that because access to Facebook is free, the criteria applied to monopolies were not relevant. Economic meaning, in the judge’s mind, is defined by the immediate effect of an act on someone’s pocketbook. He hadn’t noticed that Facebook’s methods are those of a vampire, sucking the blood out of their victims rather than charging them a fee.
Some commentators and lawmakers are suggesting that rather than counting on the courts to revise their criteria, it is time to engage in some serious antitrust reform. It is up to Congress to provide “additional tools and resources to our antitrust enforcers to go after Big Tech companies engaging in anticompetitive conduct.” But even that formulation, emphasizing fair competition, may be misleading. Would Tokyo be safer if Godzilla had a competitor? The deeper problem is the license Big Tech now has to capture, own, use and sell the data of its users. Even if Facebook had credible competitors, each of those companies would simply be competing in their thievery. The problem lies in Big Tech’s DNA.
The Times insists that “the ruling underscored the need for Congress to update the laws that police market concentration.” But that sounds naive. Expecting Congress to update anything or simply to recognize that the world has changed since the late 18th century has become an impossible task. Countering its own assertion, the article correctly points out that “there is no guarantee that the two parties will be able to agree on the specifics.”
Thanks to the complicity of the two ruling parties, Congress has reached a point at which it can neglect any specifics other than pork-barrel legislation. Instead, for real issues that concern the welfare of the people and the future of democracy, it prefers to follow what it cites as general principles or universal truths. These tend to reflect a reigning ideology of capitalist militarism and imperial privilege. Some are in direct contradiction with the Constitution. Others in the list oppose the very idea of democracy.
Here are the guiding principles, almost certain to meet with the approval of the majority in Congress:
- All defense spending is necessary and good because the military is a force for good in the world
- All acts of war in foreign lands are justified even if not mandated by Congress
- Anything that threatens the pillars of the stock market and the profitability of businesses is bad
- Those who support political campaigns with donations are active participants in democracy and wise counselors
- Competition serves to select the most meritorious, who therefore deserve any power they end up wielding
- Punishing strong competitors sets a bad example for other future donors
- Rich companies must be coddled because they generate thousands of low-paying jobs, boosting employment figures
Mark Zuckerberg’s company is well aware of these principles. In its courtroom defense, it argues, “We compete fairly every day to earn people’s time and attention and will continue to deliver great products for the people and businesses that use our services.”
In April, Michael Hirsch at Foreign Policy predicted what we are now seeing. He explained that “antitrust cases move glacially, and federal judges are extremely cautious about punishing behavior deemed anti-competitive … Plus, now every case faces the prospect of being squelched by a very conservative Supreme Court.” Our civilization is still looking for economic meaning. It may still take a while to find it.
In an essay published this week, Greece’s former finance minister and European political activist, Yanis Varoufakis, points out that “capitalism has undergone extreme makeovers at least twice since the late nineteenth century.” He describes the first transformation as the shift from competition — “Adam Smith’s baker, brewer, and butcher” — to oligopoly. He dates the beginning of the second shift to 1971 and the end of Bretton Woods, when US President Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from the price of gold. The policy of deregulation that followed over the next three decades marked the period in which “oligopolistic capitalism morphed into financialized capitalism.”
Then, in 2008, things changed again. When the private banking sector failed spectacularly, a new global economy emerged that is now “powered by the constant generation of central bank money, not by private profit.” The banks themselves are no longer central. They are the necessary intermediaries and the direct beneficiaries of state socialism as the central banks of the world funnel money to them, money they can then distribute to the elite who control different sectors of the economy in a largely monopolistic spirit. They hoard wealth by using the cash to buy back stock, thereby inflating their own assets and reinforcing their power over their zones of influence.
Varoufakis calls this new economic order “techno-feudalism.” In an interview with Now Then magazine, he explains how techno-feudalism has simply replaced capitalism. “Amazon is not a market; it’s a fiefdom,” he says. “And it’s a fiefdom that’s connected to other fiefdoms, like Facebook, through the cloud services of Amazon, which are much greater and bigger than Amazon.com. It’s like a much more technologically advanced form of feudalism.”
Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos operate like feudal lords reigning over territories that now span the globe but constitute domains with strict boundaries. The borders are defined by the proprietary technological environment that keeps their subjects locked inside, creating an invisible bond of loyalty in which users become serfs.
But this new aristocracy is even more powerful than a typical feudal lord. The techno-barons now have direct access to the king’s treasury, not because of their fealty to the king, but because the king (the state) has defined the rules by which they can draw the money they require at will. The king is thus dependent on them and lacks the power to keep them in check. As ProPublica’s recent revelations concerning systematic tax evasion by the wealthy demonstrate, the feudal lords are in effect taxing the king, who taxes the people.
Starting in the 16th century, populations began revolting against feudal regimes and overturning their authority. They could do that because authority manifested itself through visible symbols. It stood in public spaces for all to see. It took the form of splendid palaces and imposing prisons. The Bastille was one such powerful symbol. Versailles was another. But techno-estates and techno-realms cannot be stormed by mobs. The people can no longer march their leaders to the scaffold. They depend on the king’s will and the judgment of the courts to oppose the reigning aristocracy’s abuses. But the kings no longer have the power, while the courts — as we have just seen — no longer have the will.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.