Convulsion in the normality of society is a continuous process and only future generations will know whether the changes of today will be revolutionary or are just another bump on the road.
I am not convinced that the West is being taken over irrevocably by a new techno-elite, although I would accept that it may look like it. The next decades may be characterised by this dominance of the unwanted elite. There is a fascinating book out by Joel Kotkin which suggests that the West is becoming a neo-feudal society controlled as in the Middle Ages by an elite which defends its exclusive hold on power.
It does look as if the convulsions of the power structures in Western society are moving in the way Kotkin describes as tending to a new, neo-feudal settlement. It has been observed by reviewers darkly that while the grand lords in the Middle Ages accepted that society required the acceptance of mutual obligations between themselves and the peasantry, the modern technocrats do not accept the burden of obligations: they have no need to, as long as power is secured.
All this is too dark a picture though, too close to conspiracy narratives, and while that is not what the author alleges nor intends, it should ring warning bells, as should the generalisation inherent in describing a social trend in general terms.
Nevertheless, we are living through changes. Technology forces a social change, and those who know how to use the levers of power that appear will look to secure their own power. That is not modern; the seizing of personal power starts with Adam and Eve disobeying and opening their eyes, and runs in a consistent thread throughout humanity.
Some commentaries will look at formal systems of government, some at the power structures operating beneath and in spite of the formal ones, but most of everyday life operates outside government, at least in a free country.
A free country increasingly means ‘an English-speaking country’: that Anglosphere freedom has allowed enterprise to thrive and find new forms from which the whole world has benefited. At the same time, free enterprise without restraint from jealous government has allowed power to accumulate in those enterprises. The power of businesses which are not responsible to the electorate has been the subject of much anguish amongst commentators, but the darker warnings strike a false note.
If you want to see the new technology used for real political oppression, look at China. The government controls technology and enforces dependency upon it amongst the urban population (the only ones who matter), and if no one can receive or make a payment without going through a single, government-controlled payment system, then dissent means starvation. Combined with universal surveillance, it is a tyrant’s perfect system. This works not only within the Middle Kingdom but amongst students and workers abroad, dependent on the same payment and social media systems.
Compared with this, fears about the power of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are petty.
Even so, corporate monopoly power is important and is a threat in the West. Books are not banned, but with just a few providers they can be delisted, and they are, for openly political reasons. Speech online is censored at the instance of activists intimidating platform providers and infiltrating their staff: all this has been too often discussed to need repetition.
This would not be an issue without technology-dependence: twenty years ago, few would bat an eyelid at someone being banned from an on-line forum, because they were the preserve of a few geeks . Really they should be still – the online world is not the real world. It only gets serious when the online world is needed to access the real world, and those access points are limited.
A neo-feudal society would require permanent, exclusive control of power and information. Activists do seek that, in the social, commercial and political realms, but unless they can achieve a monopoly, such a system cannot endure. The Roman Church was brought low by the printing press.
Many foreign nations may be damned in this respect: they do not have the millennium-old innate understanding of individual freedom that the English-speaking peoples do and if their language is spoken only in one country then technology and publication in that language can be controlled by one government and social structure. The Chinese are compelled to follow resources in Chinese, which are controlled. The same could be done for small national languages. Technology is written in English and translated into foreign tongues, which produces a choke-point.
English though is spoken throughout the world, in cultures which take government to be an add-on necessity, not a centre for direction. If one government clamps down, the words can be spoke in another country, the book published and read abroad, the opinion expressed; the monopoly-breaking enterprise can be launched elsewhere. When American politics was censored by Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Dorsey, new channels appeared. There is a free-market. It is not even hard to break in: Mark Zuckerberg began his world-dominating resource in a college room. If the near-monopoly providers try to regulate how we behave or speak, and what books we buy, they will not remain near-monopolies: the force of the market must liberalise them in the end.
Therefore there is good reason to think that although the new feudalism is a real trend, pushed fervently by some, they cannot prevail for long.
- 41R: understanding and fear
- The Salisbury Review: still brilliant
- What did you do in the Culture War?
- Scruton’s Anglosphere
- The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A warning to the global middle class by Joel Kotkin
- Trans: When Ideology meets Reality by Helen Joyce
- When Harry Became Sally by Ryan T Anderson
- Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab
- Organizational Leadership for the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Peter A.C. Smith, John Pourdehnad
- Powerful Patients, Paperless Systems by Alan Mak (Centre for Policy Studies)