by Brian Balfour
“The vast majority of commercial and industrial establishments are now working not for the free market but for the government.” V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution; 1917
This Lenin quote leapt to mind amid the recent revelations coming from the “Twitter files” and exposed over the past several weeks. Among other disclosures, the files revealed direct lines of communication between government agencies, including the FBI and Department of Defense, and the social media company.
Twitter was found to not only be a landing spot for many agents in the government intelligence community, but also doing the bidding of agencies to suppress information deemed to be antithetical to the agencies’ goals and preferred narratives. Indeed, journalist Matt Taibbi went so far as to describe Twitter as an “FBI subsidiary.”
And it wasn’t just Twitter that the government targeted. Late last month Elon Musk tweeted “*Every* social media company is engaged in heavy censorship, with significant involvement of and, at times, explicit direction of the government,” illustrating his point by saying, “Google frequently makes links disappear, for example.”
Such revelations undercut many defenders of tech giants, who insist “they’re private companies, they can do what they want.” Instead, we must ask: are these truly ‘private companies’ in any meaningful sense?
Indeed, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman are all nominally “private companies.” But they are private in name only because they are in reality appendages of the state, relying on defense contracts (not market transactions) for their success.
We should treat big tech companies with the same skepticism we apply to tools of the military industrial complex. Certainly so after the “Twitter file” revelations.
In his quote above, Lenin was, of course, bragging about the progress made toward complete nationalization of industry in the Soviet Union of the time.
But we can also consider his statement as descriptive. When your main mission is to do the bidding of the state, rather than serving consumers in the voluntary marketplace, you are not really a private company in the true sense of the term. Your company is not a market phenomenon.
It’s no longer possible to defend social media corporations on the basis of private property rights, because big tech are what Michael Rectenwald would describe as “governmentalities,” not private companies.
Michael Rectenwald, former professor of liberal studies at New York University and author of the book “Google Archipelago: The Digital Gulag and the Simulation of Freedom,” provided context for how he believes tech goliaths like Google and Twitter come to do the state’s bidding in a November 2020 lecture.
“In a series of lectures entitled Security, Territory, Population, the postmodern theorist Michel Foucault introduced the term ‘governmentality’ to refer to the distribution of state power to the population, or the transmission of governance to the governed,” Rectenwald noted.
“Foucault referred to the means by which the populace comes to govern itself as it adopts and personalizes the imperatives of the state, or how the governed adopt the mentality desired by the government—govern-mentality,” he added.
Rectenwald, however, went even further than Foucault. “I adopt and amend the term to include the distribution of state power to extra-governmental agents—in particular to the extension and transfer of state power to supposedly private enterprises.”
What transpires, then, is a form of ‘governmentalization’ of nominally private enterprises, rather than the privatization of government functions that free market advocates prefer.
How intertwined with the government are the tech giants? The relationship predates the more recent phenomena revealed by Elon Musk’s divulgences.
“First, both Google and Facebook received start-up capital—both directly and indirectly—from US intelligence agencies,” Rectenwald informs us. In their early days, Google in particular was heavily reliant on CIA contracts and deals with other U.S. intelligence agencies.
As Lenin boasted, “The vast majority of commercial and industrial establishments are now working not for the free market but for the government.” And work for the government, including shutting down dissident voices, is what big tech has indeed been doing for years.
As a result, they can no longer be defended with cries of “but they’re private companies,” and instead be called out for what they really are: tools of state oppression.
Brian Balfour is Senior Vice President of Research for the John Locke Foundation. This column was previously published in the American Institute of Enterprise Research.