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The Sudden Unpopularity of Neoliberal Centrists

On Friday, Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator and 2020 presidential candidate, pledged that her administration would, “make big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition — including breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google.” This would consist of two steps, she wrote.

First, large tech platforms would be, “designated as ‘Platform Utilities’ and broken apart from any participant on that platform.” Platform Utilities, “would be required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users,” and, “would not be allowed to transfer or share data with third parties.” In practice, this would designate Amazon Marketplace, Google’s ad exchange, and Google Search as Platform Utilities, thus requiring them to be split off from the rest of Amazon’s and Google’s services, respectively.

Second, her administration, “would appoint regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers.” She specifically mentions Amazon’s ownership of Whole Foods and Zappos, Facebook’s ownership of WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google’s ownership of Waze, Nest, and Doubleclick.

In an article in the Washington Post, tech and policy writers Tony Romm and Brian Fung note that Warren’s pledge, “sent shock waves through Silicon Valley, where for years, tech companies enjoyed close ties to national Democrats who wanted to burnish their digital credentials and benefit from tech executives’ deep pockets.” This is rapidly changing, Romm and Fung note, suggesting that tech experts, “fear other Democratic presidential hopefuls soon would follow her lead.”

In an appeal to these ties, The Computer and Communications Industry Association, “a trade group that represents Amazon, Facebook and Google,” according to Romm and Fung, published a response saying that Warren’s pledge, “is misaligned with progressive values, many of which are shared within the tech industry.”

There’s nothing unusual historically about progressives wanting to break up powerful corporations, of course. And while some conservatives have criticised the early Democratic primary discourse for being mired in political correctness, there’s none of that in Warren’s pledge, which is more old-school progressive. So why were tech leaders so surprised? Well, part of the reason seems to be, as the CCIA response alludes to, that many of them think of themselves as progressive, and therefore as allies.

A similar dynamic appeared to play out earlier this year, when former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz came under heavy attack by progressives after announcing he was considering a presidential bid as an independent. Some of the animosity towards Schultz stems from the possibility of him drawing votes from the Democratic candidate and thus helping Donald Trump get re-elected—a reaction he might have expected—but it’s evident that the dislike of him goes beyond that, and surely took him by surprise. After all, not only was Schultz until recently a lifelong Democrat, but as Fortune’s Beth Kowitt points out, he was, “one of the early leaders of the CEO activist movement,” championing a number of progressive causes.

It seems clear that the type of progressivism that Schultz and many tech leaders subscribe to, one that seeks to combine social progressivism with relatively laissez-faire capitalism, is quickly going out of fashion. In fact, what’s especially interesting is the extent to which this position has become disliked across the political spectrum. A poll of Schultz’s candidacy revealed a remarkably consistent negative opinion of him across not just Democrats and Republicans, but Independents as well.

(Tech leaders seem to engender similarly broad dislike across the political spectrum, which also means that it’s not only progressives who are concerned about their influence. As Romm and Fung point out, “[a] key federal watchdog agency in the Trump administration just this month commissioned a new task force to study if big tech had become too big.” This might be one area where conservatives and progressives can agree.)

It’s perhaps not surprising that progressives dislike the economic inequality produced by the laissez-faire part of this political position, and that conservatives dislike the social disruption caused by the social progressivism. What seems to have changed is the number of people in the centre who think it’s a good compromise; there just aren’t that many of them anymore. In fact, popular figures like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson reject not just one of these elements, but both. (In an interview last year, Carlson advocated for the government taking a larger role in regulating the economy, including potentially banning driverless vehicles to prevent job-loss, while also criticising social progressivism.)

Clinton and Blair were early adopters of the “third way”

For better or worse, this position, popularised during the 1990s by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and sometimes referred to as the “Third Way,” seems to face growing resistance. But why, and why now? The simplest answer is that the rise in income inequality experienced in many Western countries has led to increasing scepticism towards laissez-faire capitalism. Yet, there is also an additional factor that I think is worth considering, and which can help explain some of the more recent resistance to Third Way, or neoliberal centrism among progressives. More importantly, it might help us understand where this is headed in the future.

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It’s easy to think of social progressivism as the pursuit of a set of relatively independent causes: gay marriage, gun control, universal health care. This is presumably how Schultz, for example, thinks of it. In that case, one’s position of various socially progressive issues would seem to have little to do with one’s support for capitalism. One might even say that capitalism provides the resources for these things to be pursued, and therefore that social progressivism and laissez-faire capitalism are mutually supportive. This is essentially the Third Way argument.

The problem with this view, though, is that it takes a highly simplistic view of what social progressivism entails. The vast majority of social progressivism done by corporations, for example, does not involve the pursuit of specific political issues. Rather, it’s discursive. When Nike makes Colin Kaepernick one of the faces of its brand, when Gillette develops an ad critical of toxic masculinity, when Disney puts out social justice-oriented movies, they’re not so much pursuing specific political issues as lending their financial and cultural power towards the promotion of socially progressive norms. In many cases, these initiatives are tied to their brand and products.

For every ad a corporation runs encouraging people to vote for a political initiative, it runs a hundred ads presenting a product or service through the lens of a socially progressive narrative, say, of female empowerment or racial diversity or sexual liberation or some other broad social norm. Corporate involvement in social progressivism, for the most part, is about changing society through social norms.

This is also true for individuals. The socially progressive culture at elite American colleges that writer and former lecturer William Deresiewicz describes in a 2017 essay for The American Scholar, for example, has very little to do with specific political policies. It’s almost entirely about broad social norms for speech and behaviour, especially relating to race, gender, and sexuality, that students impose on themselves and each other.

This is how humans operate: we engage with each other through social norms, and being socially progressive entails to a large extent changing and/or enforcing certain norms. Specific political positions are just the tip of the iceberg. And, of course, these norms aren’t arbitrary, they tie into particular ideologies and narratives.

Consider this recent Budweiser ad, which the company says is part of an initiative of, “reimagining our ads of the past to better portray balance and empowerment.”

Budweiser isn’t just advocating gender equality here, it’s expressing a historical critique. This approach reflects a methodology broadly known as critical theory, and it does so in two implicit ways. First, through the view of advertising as a driver of social norms—an important area of concern for early critical theorists—which it seeks here not only to critique, but also to reimagine as a way to encourage reflection and thus new social norms. Second, as a penetrating historical critique that seeks to identify oppressive social structures.

It is important to understand that critical theory originally developed as a critique not of the patriarchy or whiteness, but of capitalism, following the work of Karl Marx. Indeed, Marxism represents what might be described as a paradigm—in the language of Thomas Kuhn—for these other fields of analysis: it articulates a certain set of problems and methods for solving them that open up avenues of scholarly pursuit.

Progressives—and this includes corporations attempting to engage in social progressivism—don’t just talk about gender or racial equality as atemporal values, they increasingly couch them in narratives of overcoming oppression. So, rather than say they support gender equality, they’ll say that we need to dismantle the patriarchy, and rather than say they support racial equality, they’ll say that we need to dismantle whiteness.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who critiques the patriarchy or whiteness are Marxists, obviously. What it means is that to a large degree, the ways they problematise their focus of analysis and the methods they use to address these problems reflect those originally applied by Marx to capitalism. Indeed, the concept of “wokeness,” used by many progressives to describe a person’s awakening to the tacitly oppressive nature of the patriarchy or of whiteness, reflects the way Marx thought about capitalism.

And this brings us to the relation between social progressivism and capitalism. As progressives come to see the world through the lens of oppressive systems that must be dismantled, it stands to reason they’d be more inclined to view capitalism as one such system. It’s also plausible that young progressives would find Marxism appealing when encountering it, even if it was never promoted to them. People recognise patterns, and people who are raised on a moral worldview constructed around fighting and dismantling oppressive systems would quite likely recognise this feature in Marxism and find it intuitively appealing.

This is especially relevant with the mainstreaming of intersectionality as an analytical framework. Here, people are represented as being intersected by a number of oppressive systems, including capitalism. Now, some people have argued that intersectionality with all its many different systems of oppression, especially those related to race, gender, and sexuality, shift the focus away from class. (And thus from wealthy individuals and corporations.) This is true, but probably only for the short term. In the long term, it seems apparent that capitalism will become more and more central.

Ultimately, there’s a good argument that corporations and wealthy individuals who engage in modern social progressivism with its basis in critical theory are sawing the branch they’re sitting on. While they might themselves see no conflict between laissez-faire capitalism and social progressivism, they’re contributing to the build-up of a mainstream worldview that sees society as consisting of oppressive systems to be dismantled, and capitalism naturally fits at the top of the intersectional matrix.

Add to this a culture where attacks on privilege have become quite common and where people are fearful of being associated with it, and where anything that can be construed as a defence of privilege is considered unacceptable, and now imagine that this shifts from racial- and gender privilege to class privilege, even to a modest degree. I suspect we’re going to see more instances like this, where people like Schultz all of a sudden find themselves under attack by progressives and are blindsided by it.


Uri Harris is on Twitter @safeortrue.

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