It is only now, a decade after the financial crisis, that the American public seems to appreciate that what we thought was disruption worked more like extraction—of our data, our attention, our time, our creativity, our content, our DNA, our homes, our cities, our relationships. The tech visionaries’ predictions did not usher us into the future, but rather a future where they are kings.
They promised the open web, we got walled gardens. They promised individual liberty, then broke democracy—and now they’ve appointed themselves the right men to fix it.
But did the digital revolution have to end in an oligopoly? In our fog of resentment, three recent books argue that the current state of rising inequality was not a technological inevitability. Rather the narrative of disruption duped us into thinking this was a new kind of capitalism. The authors argue that tech companies conquered the world not with software, but via the usual route to power: ducking regulation, squeezing workers, strangling competitors, consolidating power, raising rents, and riding the wave of an economic shift already well underway.
In a winners-take-all economy, it’s hard to prove the rulers wrong. But if the tech backlash wants to become more than just the next chapter in their myth, we have to question the fitness of the companies that survived.
The Prosperity Gospel and meritocracy myths: morally convenient supremacy in 1492 and today.
A third important development was ideological or even theological: amassing wealth and dominating other people came to be positively valued as the key means of winning esteem on earth and salvation in the hereafter. As Columbus put it, “Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world, and can even lift souls up to Paradise.”
A fourth factor affecting Europe’s readiness to embrace a “new” continent was the particular nature of European Christianity. Europeans believed in a transportable, proselytizing religion that rationalized conquest. (Followers of Islam share this characteristic.) Typically, after “discovering” an island and encountering a tribe of American Indians new to them, the Spaniards would read aloud (in Spanish) what came to be called “the Requirement.” Here is one version:
> I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves. . . . The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.
Having thus satisfied their consciences by offering the Native Americans a chance to convert to Christianity, the Spaniards then felt free to do whatever they wanted with the people they had just “discovered.”
Why don’t textbooks mention arms as a facilitator of exploration and domination? Why do they omit most of the foregoing factors? If crude factors such as military power or religiously sanctioned greed are perceived as reflecting badly on us, who exactly is “us”? Who are the textbooks written for (and by)? Plainly, descendants of the Europeans.
High school students don’t usually think about the rise of Europe to world domination. It is rarely presented as a question. It seems natural, a given, not something that needs to be explained. Deep down, our culture encourages us to imagine that we are richer and more powerful because we’re smarter. (It’s interesting to speculate as to who, exactly, is this “we.”) Of course, there are no studies showing Americans to be more intelligent than, say, Iraqis. Quite the contrary: Jared Diamond begins his recent bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel by introducing a friend of his, a New Guinea tribesman, who Diamond thinks is at least as smart as Diamond, even though his culture must be considered “primitive.” Still, since textbooks don’t identify or encourage us to think about the real causes, “we’re smarter” festers as a possibility. Also left festering is the notion that “it’s natural” for one group to dominate another. While history brims with examples of national domination, it also is full of counterexamples. The way American history textbooks treat Columbus reinforces the tendency not to think about the process of domination. The traditional picture of Columbus landing on the American shore shows him dominating immediately, and this is based on fact: Columbus claimed everything he saw right off the boat. When textbooks celebrate this process, they imply that taking the land and dominating the natives were inevitable, if not natural. This is unfortunate, because Columbus’s voyages constitute a splendid teachable moment. As official missions of a nation-state, they exemplify the new Europe. Merchants and rulers collaborated to finance and authorize them. The second expedition was heavily armed. Columbus carefully documented the voyages, including directions, currents, shoals, and descriptions of the residents as ripe for subjugation. Thanks to the printing press, detailed news of Haiti and later conquests spread swiftly. Columbus had personal experience of the Atlantic islands recently taken over by Portugal and Spain, as well as with the slave trade in West Africa. Most important, his purpose from the beginning was not mere exploration or even trade, but conquest and exploitation, for which he used religion as a rationale. If textbooks included these facts, they might induce students to think intelligently about why the West dominates the world today.
What bearing does this have on institutional racism and its causes? The neo-colonial economic model is about coercing labor apart from whatever racial and / or national animosity might exist. American industries could have offered market wages to the Mexican peasants that NAFTA targeted until they agreed to work for them- this is the way that labor ‘markets’ work. But instead they chose to ‘free’ several million people from subsistence economies to compete with previously displaced Mexican labor and American industrial workers with the result that wages were lowered all around.
As uncompensated labor, slavery reduces employment and wages for the non-chattel working class. Without slavery, plantations and factories hire labor and pay it the prevailing wage. But doing so reduces profits. Then consider: this dynamic places the working class in direct competition with more deeply exploited classes, be they slaves, descendants of slaves or displaced peasants. This economic relationship of competition is (1) imposed from above and (2) socially divisive by being economically divisive.
From slavery through convict leasing, Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow, the economic lots of American blacks were never left to market forces. Each of these institutions were used to expropriate the product of black labor outside of market forces. And this racialized economic ‘management’ impacted labor markets more broadly through controlling the supply of labor. What this means is that ‘management’ of black labor was to manage the supply, and with it the price, of the entire working class, not just blacks.
In human terms, unless the source of this systematic exploitation is made visible, the class dynamic that it establishes is to make the most deeply exploited the most blameworthy. Slaves, descendants of slaves and displaced immigrants were never the creators of the circumstances of their exploitation. The fallacy of ‘takers’ that unites white racist chatter confuses state strategies to maintain relative class positions for employers with the power to expropriate social resources. The class that largely controls economic outcomes remains well-hidden in this ruse.