That disheveled man in the green tracksuit you might think is a hobo could just be the most ballyhooed American recording...
The Road to Digital Despotism
A free society has more than one constitution. It has whatever legal framework safeguards political freedom, but it also has a social constitution. The latter is itself complex: the character of religion in a legally free society might be more or less “democratic” or “monarchical,” and likewise the structure of the family and the influence of the media and commerce might tend toward one social type or another.
Alexis de Tocqueville famously thought that the Catholic Church flourished in America because its hierarchical order had a special appeal to a democratic people’s desire for clarity and guidance. Several of the Founding Fathers hoped that a social aristocracy of one kind or another, either of natural talent or cultural prestige, would leaven and improve the popular character of the legal government. The common people, so the thinking went, would choose to elect the best.
The U.S. Constitution does not establish a classically “mixed” regime—there’s no distinction of citizen classes as there was in Rome or Venice, for example—but the combination of the legal and social orders does produce a republic that cannot be reduced to a single form and principle. It is a compound republic in the geographic, federalist sense. It is also a compound republic in the social sense. Because no single principle dominates, there is great potential for freedom—and for the misuse of that freedom in ways that undermine its very foundations.
Oligarchy, for example, has the liberty to thrive. A handful of businesses can grow large enough to overawe not only their competition but the rest of society as well. This is the case today with the major technology companies. They don’t necessarily break the rules, strictly speaking. They simply use the rules—including the special rules of finance, not merely the legal rules of fair competition—to expand beyond the point where they can be checked and held to account.
Can you boycott Google or Amazon? Not to any effect. Conservatives troubled by the power these companies now wield have threatened to use the force of government against them. But when the tech companies move as one to exercise their leverage over internet communications by, for example, preventing the circulation of a New York Post article revealing the corruption of a Democratic presidential candidate’s son, or by deplatforming and unpersoning the leader of a party or movement, they can sway elections. The diversity that characterized the old print media, and that gave it at least a semi-republican and not simply oligarchic character, is not characteristic of the internet giants.
The situation today is as if the phone company at the zenith of AT&T’s market power simply cut the lines to one party’s headquarters and refused to connect calls to a candidate the monopoly chose to oppose. The tech giants are not a monopoly, of course. They’re an oligopoly or de facto cartel. The same is true of the nation’s leading institutions of higher education, which have a shared, aggressive political agenda, one that is not only left-wing but also aimed at extending the power of these institutions over society and the economy.
Conflict between our social and political constitutions is nothing new, of course. But the balance is now as heavily tilted toward a social, extralegal oligarchy as it has been in a hundred years or more. This is partly because the social and political strength of states and localities has been trivialized by the scale of the new powers—the tech companies dwarf most local and state economies, and social media have created a new mode of organizing radical activists who in an earlier age would have been fragmented and dispersed in towns and cities across the land. When the vandals decide to tear down a local monument, they now no longer have to rely on what little manpower they can assemble locally. They can organize a mob through social media and ship in the muscle to overawe the local law. (That means not just the police and local government but also the local attachment to law on the part of normal people. It only takes a few radicals—more, however, than most places produce naturally—to make unengaged, average citizens surrender in despair.)
A republican form of government at the legal, political level requires a people with a sufficiently republican personality: they cannot be dependent on one or a few consolidated institutions in their social and economic lives. If they are so dependent, or are so demoralized that they do not believe they can resist the enormous powers that shape their lives, then political liberty is a dead letter. They have succumbed to absolute, arbitrary rule, even in the midst of legal freedom.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age.
Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”
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