How Radical Is Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Break Up the Tech Monopolies, Really?

Politics Features Elizabeth Warren
How Radical Is Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Break Up the Tech Monopolies, Really?

Silicon Valley tech companies make up an important (although by no means exclusive) part of the coalition of Democratic party donors. And monopolization has yielded immense super-profits that not only have enriched capitalists in Silicon Valley but provided them with an immense patronage network both inside and outside the government. Former government officials at all levels and among both parties have at various times found post-office careers in Silicon Valley or adjacent industries. Even among other liberals, Elizabeth Warren stands in opposition to some of her peers, such as Ro Khanna, who urged caution and against any blanket statement about Silicon Valley tech companies.

Beyond the relationship between American politicians and Silicon Valley monopolies, it’s beyond questioning that the handful of tech giants have come to dominate not just the economic or cultural spheres of American life, but even the realm of the physical: from the physical degradation of workers to literally remaking American cities in their image.

And yet, upon close inspection, Warren’s antitrust policy fails to be radical at all. Warren is unable to articulate a vision of the future that expands beyond the horizons of capitalism. Far from being radical, Warren’s plans embody a conservative spirit that upholds the power of capitalism that makes the exploitative accumulation of wealth by these very tech companies possible. Warren, like Obama before her, positioned herself as the force standing between, “you and the pitchforks.” This does not curb power—it allows the tech giants of Silicon Valley to live to fight another day.

Elizabeth Warren: Free Market Capitalist

The plan has generated a fierce backlash from representatives of the tech industry, venture capitalists and policy-makers at right-wing think tanks. Democrats to the right of Warren, such as Beto O’Rourke, have made their opposition to Warren’s plan public. This is cited as proof of not only the plan’s radicalism, but evidence that Warren herself is more radical than her left critics have acknowledged. But on the issue of the tech monopolies, how far from her right-wing critics is Warren really? I believe that both Warren and her free market critics disagree on a matter of tactics—but not principle. One only has to glance at the language used in Warren’s proposal to see where her ideological justifications for this policy lie (bold selections of the text are my emphasis):

To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies.

But where the value of the company came from its network, reformers recognized that ownership of a network and participating on the network caused a conflict of interest. Instead of nationalizing these industries—as other countries did—Americans in the Progressive Era decided to ensure that these networks would not abuse their power by charging higher prices, offering worse quality, reducing innovation, and favoring some over others.

More competition means more options for consumers and content creators, and more pressure on companies like Facebook to address the glaring problems with their businesses.

Healthy competition can solve a lot of problems. The steps I’m proposing today will allow existing big tech companies to keep offering customer-friendly services, while promoting competition, stimulating innovation in the tech sector, and ensuring that America continues to lead the world in producing cutting-edge tech companies. It’s how we protect the future of the Internet.

What Warren and her critics share are the same underlying assumptions, specifically that the free market is real, that it works and that it drives innovation. And it is this, the fundamental belief in capitalism, that is the underlying symptom of the specific problems in Warren’s plans. Ultimately, it becomes a matter of tactics: Her critics to the right believe any regulation stands in the way of the so-called free market. Warren believes in regulation, but in service of facilitating an imagined free market.

Both take it for granted, for instance, that the invisible hand is what has guided tech innovation, and not heavy subsidy from the public sector (from the first human being in space being a communist to the iPhone being dependent on technologies developed with public money). That those tech companies hailed for their innovation routinely fail to be profitable is as of little concern to Warren in formulating her plans to break up Amazon as it is to her free market advocate critics. Competition in the free market is treated as the panacea that will fix all of the current ills with the tech giants.

But the problem with Amazon, Facebook et. al. isn’t that they are monopolies who don’t respect the “rules” of the “free market.” It’s that they are for profit enterprises to begin with! Exploitation and monopolization are inherent to capitalism, and this is what Warren’s plans fundamentally fail to address—that exploitation and profit are inherently linked. To fix the problems that come with Silicon Valley companies—the invasion of privacy, the exploitation of workers at home and abroad, the support for US militarism and the problems of content moderation—means moving beyond the horizons of capitalism altogether.

Specific Problems with Warren’s Plan

It is illustrative in Warren’s plan that the emphasis is on consumers and small businesses, but little, in fact nothing, is said about the people who actually work at these tech companies. Warren’s plan places emphasis on the fact that you will still be able to order something from Amazon and have it arrive at your house in two days—but she has nothing to say about where the people who work under the grueling conditions that make this consumerism fit into the post-antitrust framework. Indeed, the entire organizational structure and relations of production of these hypothetical post-antitrust companies is implicitly the same as the companies from which they were broken off.

Further, Warren has nothing to say in the way of expropriation. Although a great deal is said about the nature of disentangling the various aspects of the tech giants and the undoing of existing mergers, Warren’s intentions for the wealth of the likes of Jeff Bezos goes no farther than making him pay a slightly higher tax rate. Given Warren’s own understanding of why the monopolies are bad, this seems like a rather light punishment for someone who became one of the richest men on earth by helping to subvert democracy.

And it is on this note, the subversion of democracy, that there is the third problem with Warren’s plan—it fails to address how breaking up the companies would actually engender a democracy worth the name. Warren cites that breaking up the tech companies along the lines that she proposes would curb Russian influence on U.S. elections. But she has little to say, for instance, about the role that Facebook has played in helping the U.S. influence politics abroad or the way in which Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies have cooperated with law enforcement to track black activists, help ICE or contribute to US militarism which routinely murders people on a mass scale across the globe. Russia didn’t make Google help the Pentagon develop a better drone and it didn’t make Amazon assist ICE. Breaking up these companies fails to actually disentangle them from the anti-democratic structures of the state.

Warren’s plan has nothing at all to say about the role of Silicon Valley companies as members of global commodity chains. Implicitly the tech giants, and indeed American capitalism as a whole, are treated as a specifically national phenomenon as opposed to the actions and organization of American capitalists in a global world-system. Silicon Valley is lauded for their innovations and products that make our lives easier, but that this innovation and these products come at the exploitation of the intellectual and physical labor of the global south goes unmentioned.

That the hardware side of Silicon Valley—and the consumer market in the global north that this hardware is overwhelmingly developed for—depends on outsourcing immense environmental destruction to the global south merits not even a passing mention in Warren’s so-called bold plan to curb the power of these American capitalists. Instead, Warren dips into full blown chauvinism when she says that the purpose of her policy is to ”[ensure] that America continues to lead the world in producing cutting-edge tech companies.” For Warren, breaking up the tech giants is a move to make sure America keeps its monopoly on information technology and all of the economic and ecological relations that necessarily follow.

Towards a Radical Solution

Any truly radical solution must then start from three premises: worker ownership, re-orientation of north-south relations and expropriation without compensation.

The problem is not that there are not enough smaller Amazons competing, but that Amazon as an idea (no matter how many there are!) exists to make a profit for members of the capital owning class at the great expense of the working and oppressed. Instead of breaking up Amazon, it should be nationalized without compensation and subsequently owned and operated by the workers themselves. The guiding principle of Amazon shouldn’t be how to make Jeff Bezos the most profit, but how to dismantle and rebuild its infrastructore along democratic lines to serve the public good. In the face of certain climate apocalypse, only the truly social ownership of these companies can bring about the development of truly green technological developments.

Further, it would be impossible for Amazon to become run by the working class without quickly realizing that categories like “Microsoft worker” or “Apple worker” do not include only those working for these companies in the United States, but those workers generating Silicon Valley’s wealth through the myriad of subcontractors in the global south, who are currently paid at significantly lower wages and working under worse conditions than their northern counterparts. Taking on Big Tech cannot be a project that ends at national borders. Those producing the commodities in sweatshops for the consumer market in the north (and notably, not the domestic market of the countries in which they live) have an interest in seeing the end of big tech with those packaging and shipping those commodities in the grueling conditions of Amazon distribution centers in the global north. International solidarity is the cornerstone of any actual radical policy to take on big tech.

It’s probably obvious at this point that no presidential candidate—not Warren, Pete Buttigieg or even Bernie Sanders himself—is suggesting such policies. The impetus for the kind of radical change that is required, given the scale of the challenges that the tech monopolies pose, can’t come from any politician hoping to save the profits of the likes of Facebook or Amazon, but by the organization of the working class from below.

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