Since World War II, the cultural battle of ideologies has been pivoting around 'capitalism' as one of its axis. Even when Islamism is used as a foil (instead of the usual villain, communism), the ideals that square up against it are aligned with the concept of 'capitalism' as a kind of liberty rooted in the freedom of the marketplace. But even if we value the notion of uninhibited commerce, we can no longer pretend that capitalism, communism, or anything else of this kind is the shape of an ethic we can legitimately align with liberty. Those of us who still care about human freedom must think anew about what it is that we could reasonably hold as a shared ideal.
To understand how the situation has swung out of control, we first have to appreciate the remarkable achievements of the New Empire that has risen up to replace the Old Republic of human rights. But to bring this into focus, we need to think around the problem, to see what is hidden by the immense shadow that it casts upon our thought. A comparison with the historical 'dark ages' is not too great a stretch. These were not, as first thought, a period where there was no cultural development or exchange, but they were certainly a period during which maintenance of doctrines in a top-down fashion placed a limit upon thought and knowledge. It was not by accident that the 'dark ages' were followed by 'the Enlightenment'. Now that the light from this era dims, we face, as Alastair MacIntyre already warned us back in 1984, a "new dark ages" where the barbarians "have already been governing us for quite some time."
Since the nonsense descended upon us, I have spent more time than usual exchanging missives with US libertarians, which is to say, people who believe in personal liberty and also have great faith in the free market. There is a package of beliefs here, a non-religion that is not my own but which I respect. The assumption, not without justification, is that when we are permitted to trade our goods and services freely, the psychology of value works to bring about efficiencies in certain aspects of human life. To put this another way, those companies that deliver goods and services effectively triumph in the marketplace precisely because they act efficiently. Libertarians of such ilk are generally against the intervention of the government in matters of this kind for the logical reason that such meddling disrupts the order of the marketplace, which they contend works to bring about efficient delivery of goods and services. I actually do not disagree with them on this point, but I am perhaps too acutely aware that it is merely an ideal.
We need ideals, we need ethics, because without them we fall swiftly into evil, which is to say, causing harm and excusing ourselves of doing so (or causing harm and refusing to acknowledge that we have done so). But every ideal we adopt, every package of beliefs we take on, always also deceives us, because it comes with a blind spot that the very framework of our chosen ideal makes harder to see. For the libertarians, one way of seeing this blind spot is in the way that they conceive 'communism' (and by extension 'socialism'). To a US libertarian, socialism/communism refers to the administering of any service via the State rather than via the free market. By and large, this is not quite what these terms mean to Europeans.
Certainly, there are many on the old political left that this faith in State-services would fit, and this is especially so in the US. Completely missed here, however, is the solidarity of the workers that used to be the key ideal in British left politics before the Labour party betrayed its roots and swore allegiance to the New Empire. That there is a distortion of perception wrapped up in this understanding can be seen in the way that the US libertarians like to say that Italian fascism was a left-wing political movement. It wasn't. But neither was it a right-wing movement. It was a movement against Communism that acquired support from both the left and the right. Indeed, left-leaning radicals in Europe often supported Italian fascism if they were not convinced by Communism. This doesn't alter the nationalistic thrust of fascism, which the left simply cannot associate with itself, since it clings to an understanding of the universal genderless human that once underpinned our commitments to human rights but that has now been severed from them.
So this libertarian ideal sees the intervention of the government as harmful and the action of the free market as good. But this framework misses the enormous problem with the ideal of unencumbered trade - one which is well-known and not in question: those that successfully build enough resources through trade will form monopolies, and these inevitably disrupt the free market by virtue of the power they have thus acquired. I still do not quite understand what the libertarian's retort is in respect of monopolies, because surely you cannot complain about government intervention in the market yet turn to the government to break up monopolies!
It seems unavoidable that the only power structure with the influence to break up monopolies is the State, but the libertarian does not want the State to possess any power over the market. Do such libertarians believe that, in the imaginary ideal of free trade, people would bring down monopolies of their own accord because they would clearly see the problems they cause...? The trouble with this understanding is that nothing of the kind has ever happened. Monopolies enjoy such advantages of efficiency that the end users frequently are delighted by it - just ask those who without qualms or scruples use the services provided by Google, Meta, or Amazon, or for that matter Disney, not to mention Pfizer. Such people are delighted with what these monopolies, near-monopolies, or (in the case of pharmaceuticals) cartels deliver them. Why would they object...?
When we look at the incredible power that these transnational corporations possess, we can also see the enormous difficulty that any State has in applying power against them. The power the megacorporations possess exceeds that of most nations, not only because of the scale of the money that flows through them, but also because the sheer size of their network allows them to wield enormous influence upon the State itself. The US has tax revenues of $3.8 trillion, which is more than Amazon, Google, Meta, Pfizer, and Disney put together (about $1.04 trillion collectively). But those corporate billions not only make for enormous tax revenue the State is strongly motivated to defend, the transnationals can also buy substantial influence in Washington through political donations. In the case of the United States, where all of these companies are registered, this ultimately means the State is more interested in serving these organisations than anything else, especially while the citizens are satisfied with the services these near-monopolies and trade cartels are delivering. This is especially problematic when this allows the harms caused by these organisations to be quietly concealed.
Support for 'capitalism' means too many different things to really describe anything worth defending or opposing any more, it is an artefact of a time that has passed. To the US libertarians, 'capitalism' means supporting a free market that has not existed for quite some time now. To supporters of US corporations, 'capitalism' means something very different indeed. And either way, putting up 'communism' or 'socialism' as an opposite pole conceals the authentic political and social risks that are being faced by accepting this new power bloc. The Old Republic of human rights was not brought down by a sudden re-emergence of communism as a major international force any more than the delivery of so-called 'socialised medicine' in the Scandinavian nations excluded them from falling in line with the pharmaceutical cartels up until the Summer of this year.
For what remains of the radicals and activists, all this talk of the power of the corporations (capitalism) or the power of the state (socialism) is a distraction from what has truly destroyed the old world order and taken charge of a new one, essentially unnoticed. For it is the power that comes with scale that has triumphed, and upon which the New Empire rests. Yes, the United States operates on a global scale, and yes so does China and, to a lesser extent, the European Union, and even Russia, who everyone has their knickers in a twist over right now. But Amazon, Google, Meta, Pfizer, and Disney (in that order) equally operate on a global scale, and with greater power and influence, and each has billions of users in their networks. Even China only has a population of one and a half billion.
In The Virtuous Cyborg, I drew attention to the blurring of the lines between nations and corporations because the sheer scale of the circumstances relating to the transnationals was now coming to dwarf that of nations. It is not hard to appreciate that this increase in scale has come with a commensurate increase in power, but what it has not come with is an increase in understanding. Indeed, in The Virtuous Cyborg I suggested that "nothing is in control, least of all humanity..." precisely because power now outstrips understanding by orders of magnitude. It is far easier to build power than knowledge, since while the sciences and other methods of knowledge-production can benefit from the network effects of scale, this is only true when free debate operates within them. The moment discourse is prevented, there are no sciences as such, only power and control over research agendas. If the power grows first, the knowledge is all too easily brought under distortive control.
Whether our ideals revolve around the free market or something else entirely, we may finally have reached a point where we have to ask whether continuing to permit these transnational organisations to operate on the vast scales they have attained isn't an invitation to cause inevitable and tremendous harm. It is all but impossible to possess the power that comes with this degree of scale without falling prey to evil (causing harm) because power grows with scale but understanding need not, and certainly will not when those with power interrupt the discourse required to carefully construct understanding. Indeed, this is a possible diagnosis of the global tragedy that we just lived through.
Yet even if we reached this conclusion, what could we then do about it...? If these transnational corporations already have the greatest degree of influence over the largest of the nation states, who or what could possibly bring them to account now? The only possible answer is to forge new ideals that act against the power of scale, for without an ethic of this kind, no counterweight is possible, and the New Empire's reign will inexorably become absolute. This is one of the greatest challenges that faces those of us who are already aware that a new dark ages might already be upon us.
The opening image is Daydream Nightmares, which has been attributed to Martin Cervantez, but does not appear at his artist website for some reason. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.