How to tame the tech giants

Covid has accelerated changes that have been decades in the making, bringing about the end of utopian politics and its dystopian consequences.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the limits of the dominant postwar ideologies. Liberals continue to champion the spread of liberty and greater global technocracy, while populist and authoritarian rulers – from the US to Brazil, eastern Europe, Russia and China – pursue nationalist retreat and isolation.

Both world-views – the liberal and the nationalist-authoritarian – are utopias with dystopian consequences. Their endeavours to restore economic prosperity and public health in the wake of the coronavirus crisis rest on either a return to liberal capitalism, discredited since the 2008 financial crash, or by developing methods of advanced bio-surveillance.

Similarly, the emerging economic models of the future – the US-led platform economy, embodied by digital giants such as Amazon and Facebook on the one hand, and Chinese state-backed corporations, such as Huawei and Alibaba, on the other – are equally unpalatable as ways of enhancing democracy and citizenship. Both forms converge towards systems of total surveillance with the power to monitor and manipulate the behaviour of populations, overseen by a new class of technocratic planners and scientific elites.

We still do not know if the pandemic will lead to a new ideological consensus, as happened after the Second World War with the rise of social democracy, or after 1989 and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism.

Covid-19 has accelerated changes that have been decades in the making. Before the virus, nation-states were re-emerging as bulwarks against the global market. Now the pandemic has the potential to engender a new settlement in which the state not only protects economies from recession, but also strives to serve the common good.

But another consequence of expanded government intervention is a form of statism that supports capitalist oligarchies, such as Amazon and Alibaba, while stripping citizens of fundamental freedoms and dignity. Embedded within tech utopianism are the seeds of a new totalitarian dystopia.

Hope for a more democratic future cannot rest on unforeseen crises that undermine the tech giants. Nor should societies place all their faith in protective states. Adjusting laws in times of crisis, as we have seen during the pandemic, can harden into new norms after the emergency has ended. Unmediated state sovereignty risks authoritarian control at home and anarchy abroad.

Instead of returning to the neoliberal settlement of the recent past, or seeking comfort in authoritarian nationalism, societies should look to democratic corporatism as a model. To protect citizens from the pressures of both state and market power, the intermediary institutions that help constitute society need to be strengthened. These include trade unions, universities, business associations and faith communities, as well as other sites of exchange and association, such as pubs, post offices and public libraries.

In 1999, David Marquand, the British academic and former Labour MP, published a prescient essay, “Populism or Pluralism?”, in which he wrote: “Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher of absolute sovereignty, famously compared such collectivities to ‘worms in the entrails of a natural man’. [But] Pluralists see them as antibodies protecting the culture of democracy from infection.” Only by renewing democratic pluralism will societies achieve greater social solidarity.

In Britain, the response to Covid-19 has inspired a new impetus to corporatist bargaining between the state, business, trade unions and the charitable sector. We are witnessing how the voluntary involvement of civic groups is essential for sustaining agriculture, education, welfare and people’s mental and physical health.

But this new corporatism depends too much on the will of the executive and on central government resources, and not enough on a decentralised form of democracy.

A corporatist polity is meant to constrain state and market power within a balanced institutional arrangement. New trade unions in the gig economy are as vital to the functioning of a fair and prosperous democracy as the laws designed to check corporate monopolies.

Just as democratic corporatism cannot flourish when it is too dependent on the government, it also cannot survive in international isolation. If a plural and democratic corporatism between estranged interests can be negotiated at the national level, then cooperation across borders is equally possible.

Democratic nations need to nurture a new international settlement, one that is sensitive to the importance people attach to place and a sense of belonging.

The alternative to a fragmented globalisation is neither nationalism nor failed multilateralism, but a civic internationalism of cooperative states anchored in strong institutions that devolve wealth and power to people. New forms of international cooperation should channel capital into productive activities and uphold workers’ rights and environmental standards.

One way to do this would be to empower institutions such as the International Labour Organisation and strengthen ties between free, democratic trade unions. Another way is to build cross-border public green investment banks, agricultural cooperatives and distribution networks for small and medium-sized enterprises.

A more resilient economy will require a new institutional infrastructure that sustains public investment in key workers – carers and cleaners, farmers and drivers, shelf-stackers and shopworkers.

Respect for the status of workers is essential to greater democracy in the workplace. Only democratic association will enable workers to resist the dehumanisation and exploitation of capitalism.

Once Covid-19 restrictions are eased, and one hopes dispensed with if a vaccine is discovered, liberals and authoritarians will no doubt seek to reassert their ideological dominance.

But there is an alternative: renewed democratic corporatism and internationalism that combines a protective state with international cooperation to serve the common good. 

Adrian Pabst is head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and a New Statesman contributing writer. He is the author of Liberal World Order and Its Critics (Routledge). Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianPabst1​.

This article appears in the 14 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall

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