Joe Biden and Kamala Harris's inauguration has brought renewed hope for the survival of democracy to many in the US and around the world. This was no mere “peaceful transition of power” from one political party to another. Indeed, it was only several weeks ago that an insurrection jeopardized this event at the Capitol and the threat of more violence to come.
Watching the Capitol stormed by a far-right mob was a tragic if not the all too predictable result of four years of Trumpism. Vile conspiracy theories and racist vitriol drove a motley group of misled radicals to a pathetic act of domestic terrorism.
Equally predictable was how social media corporations would suddenly dump Trump, recasting themselves on the side of democracy against fascism. For many, even on the Left, this highly publicized banning of Trump is hugely welcome. Others saw it as setting a dangerous precedent for privately backed censorship.
Beyond the immediate headlines is a more severe threat to democracy. That threat comes from granting social media and tech firms the power of political self-regulation. This escalating power is an issue of urgent corporate public accountability separate from the debate over free speech and censorship.
The history of appeasing fascism has never ended well for democracy. Neither has granting corporations the power to police themselves. To expect business corporations like Twitter and Facebook to transform into democratic saviors poses a profound and long-term danger to the actual survival of democracy.
That is not to say that hateful rhetoric should not be shut down. However, it does highlight the peril in allowing these tech firms to profit from that rhetoric politically. Remember, these are the same corporations that have been commercially benefiting from authoritarianism’s resurgence over the past decade.
Turning against fascism as the zeitgeist shifts smell more like an economic decision than a genuine political commitment. After all, it was not until the 11th hour of Trump’s disastrous presidency that they had the nerve to take action. And the incoming Biden administration should take heed of these cynical ploys if it wants to protect the long term survival of democracy.
Corporate ‘Democracy Washing’
The public perception of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media conglomerates has seemingly changed overnight. By banning Trump, they transformed from platforms that actively gave voice to extremism with apparent little care for its social effect. The transformation was into veritable heroes at the vanguard of the fight against 21st-century fascism.
Despite this U-turn's blatant opportunism, these companies were applauded for taking a political stand against dangerous demagogues. They literally digitally canceled Trump. After all, who needs yesterday’s man!
This turn-on-Trump strategy was mirrored by other corporate powers, including many big banks. Even the Professional Golf Association “cut ties” with Trump after the riot on the Capitol.
Astute commentators pointed out that ‘insurrection’ in Washington was a fearful case of history repeating itself. The rise of far-right paramilitaries against the backdrop of democracy in crisis was eerily reminiscent of the Weimer Republic’s final days before collapsing to Nazi rule.
Acclaimed sociologist Walden Bello noted that the Capitol events represented a similar strategy to earlier fascists who used street violence to have their political demands met while undermining fundamental democratic institutions.
However, there is another prescient historical example that should also come to mind. It is not the black and white images of the early 20th century but the neon colors of the 1980s and its massive corporate scandals.
In the wake of the endemic corruption at that time, corporations pushed for the right to regulate themselves. Rather than being a turning point to stop the excesses of neophyte neoliberalism, the crises led to a cottage industry of ‘business ethics.’ It made companies look like they were doing the right thing but has done relatively little to address the problems.
It is well chronicled that the far-right resurgence is a byproduct of decades of neoliberal austerity and the bald-faced lie of trickle-down economics. It is the same pattern with the tech companies ditching Trump. They are washing their hands of any responsibility for the damage they caused as a megaphone for fascism. To make things worse, they present themselves as a positive political and ethical, social force.
For decades, businesses of all types have expounded their heroic role in filling regulatory gaps when it comes to economic matters. With the Trump social media ban, this has come full circle to encompass political and democratic matters.
The clear and present danger is that the corporate solution is every bit as insidious as the corporate disease. Corporations taking over where neoliberal governments have left off is tantamount to the privatization of the public sphere.
The actions of these corporations after the Capitol riots are nothing less than ‘democracy washing.’ They are embracing democracy to serve their underlying and ultimately anti-democratic interests.
We know that corporate greenwashing has done nothing to solve climate change. We know too that pinkwashing is not the solution for ensuring queer rights. Just the same, democracy washing will not stem the tide of authoritarianism or threat of fascism.
Profiting off Democracy
There is much more to democracy washing than moral hypocrisy. If corporations were simply disingenuous in adopting democratic values, de-platforming Trump and rejecting fascism could be almost excused. Democracy washing is much more insidious because it aims to strengthen further a status quo where the real political power lies with private capital.
Only a week after big business made a public break with Trump, they were already hoping that things would go back to business as usual. While CEOs highlight their desire for robust stimulus and vaccine programs, their real aspiration is to avoid having this insurrection spark real systemic change.
Businesses ‘want the screaming to stop’, as one banking exec put it. After that, markets can settle, and corporate capitalist hegemony can be safely restored.
There is another reason that Tech companies, in particular, want to return to the days of pre-Trump democratic civility. It is to avoid the scrutiny of their own profoundly undemocratic practices.
Hushed below the trumpeting of corporate political righteousness was a new year that had already witnessed a wave of union struggles by tech workers. Against the will of their executives, Google and Amazon workers were at the forefront.
Added to these struggles for economic democracy was the high-profile firing of a Black female senior computer executive Timnit Gebru by Google. Gebru’s sacking came after she challenged Google’s ethical problems with their use of artificial intelligence. Gebru was also a critic of Google’s lack of effective diversity management.
The reason social media conglomerates loved Trump was the same reason that the traditional mainstream media loved him. For all his crude talk and deplorable actions, he brought high ratings translating into even greater profits. He was no longer of use when his days of being able to do that were numbered.
In the wake of the Capitol riots, big-tech and social media are distancing themselves from Trump. That does not mean that they won’t still focus, above all else, on profiting from what’s left of democracy.
Privatizing the Struggle for Freedom
The storming of the Capitol might have been an assault on democracy. Still, Twitter canceling Trump’s account shows that real political power in the United States shifted from government to corporations long ago. And if the optimism of the inauguration is going to do more than just ring in an era of hollow hope, it must directly take on this corporate power.
The neoliberal order that saw a wide exacerbation of inequality had made fertile ground for a rabble-rousing populist like Trump to seize power. False promises of a return to a mythical past of greatness proved more appealing than the harsh realities of a failed American dream.
This all came crashing down in the wake of a far-right assault on The Capitol. What once had been late-night Twitter rants and dark web conspiracy theories turned into real violence threatening the symbolic heart of US democracy.
The events in Washington last week make it appear that social media tech giants like Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, and Instagram thought the Tweeter-in-chief’s populism had all gone too far. If they had used Trump’s patois, they would have said: ‘you’re fired.’
In reality, social media’s sudden moral awakening is in many ways just as troubling and a threat to democracy as their enabling of Far-right populism. It reflects the transformation of authoritarianism into a profitable and viral phenomenon.
What is needed is not the knee jerk last minute banning of would-be dictators but a publicly owned and controlled social media that puts our freedoms over tech shareholders' financial gains.
Major corporations are well versed in politics. The extensive cadre of well-paid lobbyists, public relations experts, and brand gurus they employ all know that powerful political figures can make or break a business. Business, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows.
Donald Trump’s failure to win the election and the inglorious end to his presidency made dumping him from social media politically savvy for the tech giants. The fact that action was taken this late shows that the decisions were commercial as much as it was political.
The 21st century, like the century before it, has already witnessed the insidious use of the language of democracy to spread US imperialism. The ‘liberation’ of Iraq cost them hundreds of thousands of lives and decades of development. Meanwhile, corporations made billions from the conflict.
We have also seen corporate-friendly rightwing oligarchies installed in Latin America from Honduras to Bolivia. The intention was to thwart the perceived threat of ‘left-wing authoritarianism.’ It is with good reason that the world shudders in fear when the United States arrives to spread democracy.
In 2021 the fight for democracy has come home to the US. Like they have elsewhere globally, American businesses are figuring out how to take advantage of the conflict economically and politically.
For corporate America, democracy is just one more business opportunity and a way to cover their own unjust and repressive activities. The future of a government by the people depends on making sure that democracy is not privatized.