Trump alarms for the End of Democracy as we know it

The recent release of a trove of over 8,000 documents detailing surveillance programs at the Central Intelligence Agency by Wikileaks restarted the discussion about massive surveillance programs and the end of privacy. The documents describe CIA surveillance capabilities beyond even what former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed in his document release in 2013. The files allege that the CIA had turned many ordinary consumer products into vehicles for domestic spying.

It’s not the first time we realize that Internet is a surveillance state. We’re constantly monitored on the Internet by hundreds of companies — both familiar and unfamiliar. Everything we do there is recorded, collected, and collated — sometimes by corporations wanting to sell us stuff and sometimes by governments wanting to keep an eye on us. With the Internet of Things will become certainly worst. Bruce Schneier, an Internet Security expert and blogger says it in a shocking way. “It’s true that it (the Internet of Things) will make a lot of wonderful things possible, but the “Internet of Things” will also allow for an even greater amount of surveillance than there is today. The Internet of Things gives the governments and corporations that follow our every move something they don’t yet have: eyes and ears.”

But, I am afraid massive surveilance is just the top of the iceberg. As we all know, the real big problems and the risks involved with icebergs are well hidden below the sea surface. Here is the iceberg: Political Disruption because of the on-going 4th Industrial Revolution. Or, if you prefer, the End of Democracy as we know it.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is reshaping not only the way we produce and consume products but the way we understand the world and ourselves too. Obviously, this disruption creates a new social landscape, and that means that sooner or later new political entities, new governance patterns, and new political business models will emerge. This is one of the key-lessons we have learnt from the previous industrial revolutions too: each substantial shift to the economic landscape results, sooner or later, to important political changes too. After all, all the major political terms we still use were born during the First and the Second Industrial Revolution: anarchism, communism, socialism, imperialism, capitalism.

I believe that right here, right now, we are living the beginning of a serious Political Disruption that drives to the End of Democracy as we know it. Trump, Brexit and all the rest phenomena are signals of the Political Disruption that follows the economic disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The current political establishment is not capable to manage the challenges of the new era, and the new political entities are not yet visible, nor established. As Antonio Gramsci said and Trump’s election remind us “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters”.

Simply, you can’t manage the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its huge social consequences with the political software of the Second Industrial Revolution. Let’s discuss why.

Rising Inequality

It is well established that rising inequality erodes democracy. But in the era of extreme inequality, the very meaning of democracy is fundamentally redefined. The currently available technological advances, and the ones that are already visible, provide unimaginable opportunities to create a better world for all of us. But they also bring the potential, already a reality in some cases, to increase inequality and poverty, marginalize billions of people and create what Noam Chomsky has called “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor” .

As McAfee has put it in Gideon Rose’s book “In 2014, the richest 1% held 48% of the world’s total wealth. In part this increased unevenness reflects growing inequality in wages and other forms of compensation. Automation and digitization are less likely to replace all forms of labor than to rearrange, perhaps radically, the rewards for skill, talent and luck. It is not hard to see how this would lead to an even greater concentration of wealth, and with it, power.” The recent data published by OXFAM present a rapidly widening inequality gap. Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, said: “It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when 1 in 10 people survive on less than $2 a day. Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty; it is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy”.

Up to now, everything shows that the 4th Industrial Revolution will further increase the gap. According a famous USB report the richest stand to gain more from the introduction of new technology than those in poorer sections of society, and policymakers are obliged to intervene to tackle the widening inequality.

In the United States, the increase in the income share of the top one per cent is at its highest level since the eve of the Great Depression. In India, the number of billionaires has increased tenfold in the past decade. In Europe, poor people struggle with post-recovery austerity policies while moneyed investors benefit from bank bailouts. Africa has had a resource boom in the last decade but most people there still struggle daily for food, clean water and health care.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton recently cited a Forbes story that reported “only twice before in American history has so much been held by so few, and the gap between them and the great majority been a chasm — in the late 1920’s and in the era of the robber barons in the l880's.” Oren Levin — Waldman links this situation straightforward with Trump’s election:

“With rising inequality, it ought to be clear that there are serious challenges to democracy. It cannot be predicted with certainty just how disruptive inequality will be to democracy, as this is contingent on the fragility of democracy. In the U.S., we are clearly seeing an erosion in democracy in that elected representatives no longer represent all people equally. Rather there is greater responsiveness to those with resources, especially those contributing to political campaigns. Increasingly those without resources find themselves frozen out. In more fragile democracies, the response is unrest. And even in the U.S. we see some of that with various social protest movements. Although the results of the 2016 national election were not necessarily a response to rising income inequality, they were clearly a response to the larger economic conditions of which rising income inequality has been a symptom”.

Algorithms against democracy?

As more and more artificial intelligence is used, we are facing problems that were not even imaginable few years ago. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was common to think of the internet as a decentralized, even anarchic, place where no one was really in charge. Online-only news organizations were still in their infancy, so that most people either got their news from traditional sources like newspapers or cable news shows, or else they went to the home pages of conventional news organizations like the New York Times, the Atlantic, or Fox News.

In 2016, we all learnt that Facebook’s algorithms were feeding the users with fake news in many cases. Timothy Lee, from Vox, explains the problem like this. “The rise of social media sites has changed things in two major ways. First, social media has drastically lowered barriers to entry in the news business. It has always been easy for anyone to publish a website, of course. But as news consumption is increasingly driven by social media sharing, it’s becoming easier than ever for no-name sites to reach a big audience. At the same time, a handful of big tech companies — Twitter, Google, and especially Facebook — have gained a huge and growing influence over what news people see. 44 percent of US adults tell pollsters they got news from Facebook in 2016… And while many people get their news from television programs or newspapers, those media are divided among many competing news organizations. This means that Facebook has a larger influence over ordinary Americans’ media diets than almost any other news organization…”

But the problem seems to be even deeper and more complex. In the great article “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?” that was published in Scientific American, a bunch of scientists describe what’s coming for all of us. “Today, Singapore is seen as a perfect example of a data-controlled society. What started as a program to protect its citizens from terrorism has ended up influencing economic and immigration policy, the property market and school curricula. China is taking a similar route. Recently, Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google, invited the military to take part in the China Brain Project. It involves running so-called deep learning algorithms over the search engine data collected about its users. Beyond this, a kind of social control is also planned. According to recent reports, every Chinese citizen will receive a so-called ”Citizen Score”, which will determine under what conditions they may get loans, jobs, or travel visa to other countries. This kind of individual monitoring would include people’s Internet surfing and the behavior of their social contacts.” Their main conclusion is that with the advanced applications of artificial intelligence for commercial reasons we shift from programming computers to programming people. “The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others. But it won’t stop there. Some software platforms are moving towards “persuasive computing.” In the future, using sophisticated manipulation technologies, these platforms will be able to steer us through entire courses of action, be it for the execution of complex work processes or to generate free content for Internet platforms, from which corporations earn billions. The trend goes from programming computers to programming people.”

Another great example is presented by Quincy Larson in Medium, in his article “What do Uber, Volkswagen and Zenefits have in common? They all used hidden code to break the law”. In this article, the author explains the huge power of software developers “The world is increasingly dependent on the code that developers create. As such, developers are quickly becoming some of the most powerful people in the world. Coding is a superpower. With it, you can bend reality to your will. You can make the world a better place. Or you can destroy it.” The more the algorithms are out of any public control, the more they become a real existential threat for democracy! Uber and Volkswagen were caught, but they demonstrate how unprepared our democracies are to manage the new era where algorithms will determine many of the day to day activities and their relevant social outputs.

Elites against democracy

2016 was the perfect storm. Brexit and Donald Trump created unprecedentedly waves of political debates, not only about the policies and the ideologies involved, but also about the right of people to vote! I think the most representative one was the Foreign Affairs article “It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses”. It seems that there is a growing trend in the world’s rich 1% that reconsiders the meaning of democracy and would like the elites to revolt against the ignorant masses. Andrew Sullivan has put the same reaction in another way in his post “Democracy fails when it becomes too democratic”.

“The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force. But elites still matter in a democracy. They matter not because they are democracy’s enemy but because they provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself.”

Modern democracy, in its western version, is problematic. Not because of the participation of the ignorant masses, but because this participation is continuously by-passed. Our journey towards the end of democracy as we know it has started several years ago. For the last 30 years, we are experiencing a systematic effort, supported by Liberal, Social Democracy, Rightwing, Center-left and Center-Right parties to leave major economic issues out of the political debate. That is sold as “the independency of central banks from the governments” or like “economic issues should be excluded from referendums” or like “the only economic growth available is through privatizing absolutely everything, everywhere, immediately and at low-cost for investors and with no labor rights”. The efforts of the political establishment were successful. Only bankers, multinationals and stock-exchange brokers are authorized to speak and decide for our economic future, any other opinion is literally expelled from the mainstream policies and the public debate.

Sociologist Frank Furedi says that the overall scope of work “is to limit democratic debate to parochial issues, like how much money should be spent on parks or waste disposal in local communities; apparently we should leave the big, complicated questions to the experts”.

The result is that democracy becomes a caricature as we realized in Greece, and not only, during the last years. Greece portraits a possible future for many countries. No matter which is the government the only option available is to implement faster or slower a program that has been imposed by “technocrats” who are not subject to any democratic control.

But, just a minute. This brings me back to the fourth industrial revolution. How far is this practice from putting algorithms above politicians and democracies? How far is it from letting artificial intelligence algorithms prepared by bankers to drive the evolution of societies? After all, algorithms might be more sensitive to poverty and massive unemployment that German economic bureaucracy and IMF experts. There is a possibility that is really frightening: artificial intelligence driven societies seems a logical step, when we have been so familiar with the substitution of democracy by the religion of markets.

Interconnectivity and social media

But the religion of markets is not enough to explain what happened in 2016. After all, markets did everything possible against Trump and Brexit. Only when the religion of markets meets Twitter and Facebook things become meaningful. William Saito describes the facts in a perfect way:

“These surprises (Brexit and Trump) weren’t supposed to happen in the era of big data and artificial intelligence. Both the quantity and quality of information were supposed to get better. But as we became comfortable and confident with technology, the fundamental way we communicate and exchange information also changed. This era of anytime mobility helps like-minded individuals band together via social media. They share information which isn’t necessarily incorrect, but is definitely myopic and biased, leading to what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” In the last few years, supporters who shared tweets and articles and reaffirmed beliefs that furthered their cause unleashed a populist movement that changed everything from geopolitics to who gets to live in America’s White House and South Korea’s Blue House”.

How did we arrive here? The answer is found in the exponentially rising interconnectivity, the 4th Industrial Revolution and the transformation of communication markets and patterns! Five years ago, the five largest companies on the planet were oil or oil-related. Today, the five largest are all information-based — data has truly become the “new oil” and, as with oil, it’s a resource that’s full of opportunities and surprises. Saito is right when he points that “Unlike traditional public utilities, communication infrastructure and media, as well as the infrastructure underlying the internet, is now mostly owned by private groups. This is another example of how the balance of power between public and private forces has changed and even transcended boundaries of sovereignty, further complicating governments’ roles and making this a truly global issue”.

Instead of conclusions

The Fourth Industrial Revolution brings already a serious political disruption and drives the Western type societies closer to the End of Democracy as we know it. An already obvious consequence is the obsolescence of the dominant political establishment.

I found no reason to cry about it. This establishment has been identified as a main cause and a part of the huge problems that societies face. It has been actively involved to promote policies that drive inequality and wealth concentration. It has tried for ten years to overcome the financial crisis saving the banks and putting the burden to citizens. It promoted the excision of economic issues from public debate. It justified, under the globalization scheme, the efforts of multinationals and banks to cannibalize our world’s resources. Now, it’s becoming obsolete, because it is both completely isolated from the citizens and incapable to manage the new social tensions that the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings.

It’s a pity that the ones that seem to succeed the old political establishment are even worst, although Gramsci has predicted it. As Bernie Sanders said about Trump “What he wants, I think, is to end up as leader of a nation which has moved in a significant degree toward authoritarianism where the president of the United States has extraordinary powers, far more so than our constitution has provided for or the values of the American people support.” So many years of democracy devaluation by the dominant political establishment have set the scene for such political nightmares.

I would like to finish with some words from Jeff Sparrow, a writer, editor and broadcaster, and an Honorary Fellow at Victoria University, from The Guardian.

“The internet facilitates instantaneous worldwide communication and provides almost universal access to a vast compendium of human knowledge. … it provides a technical solution to all the traditional difficulties of democracy, allowing ordinary people the means and information to express their preferences with an ease unimaginable to earlier generations. But democracy isn’t simply a matter of choice. It’s also a matter of power — and, at the moment, voters have very little of that.”