Photo illustration by John Lyman



The Corporatocarcy is Nigh

The storming of the U.S. Capitol in early January dealt a death blow to the myth of American exceptionalism. Laid bare, the fragility of American democracy was self-evident. Egged on by a petulant septuagenarian in dire need of constant reaffirmation, a mob of the far-right and QAnon followers stormed the Capitol in what was either the most ham-fisted attempt at a coup, or a lynch mob set on killing Mike Pence, Nany Pelosi, and others.

In short order, social media platforms moved to ban Donald Trump, some permanently. From Twitter to Facebook to – arguably the most delicious of them all – TikTok, any social media platform with a semblance of profitability banned Donald Trump. Likewise, a concerted effort from Apple, Google, and Amazon killed Parler, the social media platform of choice for the far-right. In a final strike against the right, a group of corporations promised they would no longer make financial contributions to any Republican member of Congress who voted against certifying the November election results.

In the span of one week, a group of powerful corporations utterly upended U.S. politics. From silencing the most powerful man [at the time] in the world to curtailing access to an app to likely dooming the re-election chances for dozens of members of Congress, January 2021 was the year where every cyberpunk fever dream of a corporate-dominated world took one step closer to becoming a reality. Cue the exploding flames over Los Angeles and the rain-drenched streets of Blade Runner or the slogan-filled world of Idiocracy.

I, for one, hail our new corporate overlords.

On the one hand, several are relieved that someone, somewhere, finally took the steps necessary to cut off xenophobia, hate speech, and white nationalism at the source. I count myself among these people. Donald Trump set a dangerously low bar for discourse in the United States on race, immigration, justice, power, and any other number of topics. His continued presence online was arguably one of the most significant threats to domestic unity and homeland security the country faced.

In short, silencing Donald Trump was akin to putting down a rabid dog that has terrorized a neighborhood for far too long.

While I wholeheartedly agree that Donald Trump is a walking, breathing threat to democracy itself, I likewise feel this kind of rampant power is just as dangerous should it be allowed to continue to run amok.

Of course, it cannot be overlooked that these platforms cut ties with Donald Trump only after they had profited enormously from his presence. No one has ever accused American corporations of anything other than self-interest draped in altruism.

At the end of the day, Americans are being asked to choose between two options in a toxic, destructive, false dichotomy. Do we abide by corporate-defined spaces with their own arbitrary standards and rules, as well as the domination of political norms by the financial muscle of companies that have benefitted from the laissez-faire largesse of the American government? Or, must we bound them all through strictures that limit expression and halt growth and prosperity?

Clearly, neither of these options can be allowed if we are to continue to live in a rules-based order, one that acknowledges the innate dignity and rights of all Americans. As it currently stands, social media has become an absolutely crucial means by which elected leaders communicate with their constituencies, as well as a regular space in which everyday citizens express themselves. Likewise, these and other companies exercise inordinate sway over our electoral processes through the capability to fund any candidate of their choosing through ungodly amounts of money.

Rather, Congress must come to look at online expression as something that must be regulated by extension of the public green these firms utilize, the Internet. An analogy already exists in terms of federal highways. Regulations target the companies that simultaneously profit most from and do the most damage to these open-access infrastructure networks. Even as transportation companies such as JB Hunt and Swift profit from truck transportation, they also must pay special fuel taxes on diesel specifically meant to recoup costs due to the increased wear-and-tear their fleets inflict on federal highways.

Though not a perfect analogy, the fact of the matter is that dozens of companies profit off of the Internet without maintaining its underlying infrastructure or even helping to create the infrastructure in the first place. Congress is, without a doubt, free to look into legislating what these companies can and cannot do, what effects they have on our society, how they should be regulated and governed. Given that these companies have formed the backbone of foreign interference and internal sedition, there is no better time to act.

As for the power these companies wield over the political process, I am tempted to just throw my hands up in abject surrender. Time and time again, the issue of campaign finance, money in politics, corporate personhood have been debated, only for a neoliberal approach to win each and every time. Like a mind with no superego, the id of corporate finance in American politics has run wild and continues to do so. I do not see any relief in this regard coming for some time unless a groundswell of opposition to this kind of corporate behavior forces a change in the private sector.

Again, cynical decision-making cloaked in the austere visage of altruism.

Is there a better descriptor for January 2021, the month we came closest to a cyberpunk reality?