“America is moving toward an oligarchical socialism”


This might be the most important piece you will read today, or maybe this week, from my favourite urbanist and demographer Joel Kotkin:

Oligarchal socialism allows for the current, ever-growing concentration of wealth and power in a few hands — notably tech and financial moguls — while seeking ways to ameliorate the reality of growing poverty, slowing social mobility and indebtedness. This will be achieved not by breaking up or targeting the oligarchs, which they would fight to the bitter end, but through the massive increase in state taxpayer support.

Historically, liberals advocated helping the middle class achieve greater independence, notably by owning houses and starting companies. But the tech oligarchy — the people who run the five most capitalized firms on Wall Street — have a far less egalitarian vision. Greg Fehrenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders, says most believe that “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ’gig work‘ and government aid.”

Numerous oligarchs — Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, Elon Musk and Sam Altman, founder of the Y Combinator — have embraced this vision including a “guaranteed wage,” usually $500 or a $1,000 monthly. Our new economic overlords are not typical anti-tax billionaires in the traditional mode; they see government spending as a means of keeping the populist pitchforks away. This may be the only politically sustainable way to expand “the gig economy,” which grew to 7 million workers this year, 26 percent above the year before.

Handouts, including housing subsidies, could guarantee for the next generation a future not of owned houses, but rented small, modest apartments. Unable to grow into property-owning adults, they will subsist while playing with their phones, video games and virtual reality in what Google calls “immersive computing.”…

Theoretically, the Democrats moving to the left should terrify the oligarchs. Yet increased income guarantees, nationalized health care, housing subsidies, rent control and free education could also help firms maintain a gig-oriented economy since these employers do not provide the basic benefits often offered by more traditional “evil” corporations in energy, manufacturing and basic business services.

Such subsidies would help millions of gig workers, as well as the vastly underpaid production workers at Amazon’s warehouses, erratically paid workers at the Tesla car factory or the contract labor who clean the tech firms’ buildings and provide security. As historian Jeff Winters has pointed out, the oligarchy, representing basically the top .01 percent of the population, are primarily interested not in lower taxes but in protecting their market shares and capital; they have been at least as brilliant in avoiding taxes as developing innovative products. He points out the very rich have maintained their share of assets even in welfare states such as Sweden and Finland.

The losers here will be our once-protean middle class. Unlike the owners of corporations in the past, oligarchs have no interest in their workers become homeowners or moving up the class ladder. Their agenda instead is forever-denser, super-expensive rental housing for their primarily young, and often short-term, employees.

As they say, read the whole thing, even though I’ve quoted most of the thing above.

I would merely add that all socialism is oligarchical – not in theory but in practice. Whether under the Soviet style communism, Third World socialism, or even the soft version of social democracy, there is always an elite, which controls most of the wealth. This is not a bug, it’s a feature;  not “not the real socialism”, but exactly socialism – socialism as it always invariably turns out when Marxist theory clashes with human nature. The only difference is the overall standard of living and the degree of freedom that the great majority of “the people” enjoy, which ranges from the minimal on the hard left to quite OK in the Scandinavian-style welfare state (though one can argue to what extant this is still socialism as opposed to another variety of statism and collectivism).

Kotkin’s vision of the leftie future is dystopian and depressing, but it rings true. I have been pondering for a while, for example, on similarities between China’s Communist Party and America’s big tech oligarchs, most importantly that both see modern technology not only as source of wealth (mostly for themselves) but also an instrument of subtle and not so subtle social control. When Google collaborates with the Chinese authorities on a version of search engine that excludes whole areas around democracy, human rights and religion, it’s not really all that different to the way Google’s progressive monoculture increasingly shapes their algorithms to stack the deck against the conservatives back home. When China’s president for life Xi Jinping proclaims that internet must be “clean and righteous” and  the Party’s rules are revised to punish and shun “spreading political rumours” and religious faith,  this is the mirror image of the Western left’s obsession with independent and incorrect thought. Channels will be censored, debate closed down, opinions pathologised. The left, by and large, does not believe in freedom of speech, except for themselves so that the work of reshaping the society in its own image can go on unhindered.

Middle class has traditionally in the modern history been the bearer of the democratic and liberal ideas and ideals. That its values, its prosperity. and its very existence are now increasingly under assault does not bode well for the future. The left has always despised the bourgeoisie, but I’m not arguing that the social, cultural and economic trends of the past few decades are the work of some sort of a highly conscious and organised progressive conspiracy – the Elders of Intel – but they are very much welcome to the extent they are eroding the modestly but independently wealthy and therefore rather cautious and rational cohort that’s difficult to manipulate and control. If you are a “socialist oligarch” you much rather lord it over a society of techno-peasants, hooked on the government and hooked on the machines. All that the shrinking middle is good for are the taxes to keep the helots subsidised. It’s egalitarianism for the masses, but power and wealth for their betters. The road to serfdom is paved with good Instagrams.