My latest Guardian column examines the relationship between technology, surveillance and wealth disparity -- specifically the way that cheap mass surveillance makes it possible to sustain more unequal societies because it makes it cheaper to find and catch the dissidents who foment rebellion over the creation of hereditary elites.
Social stability comes at the intersection of "guard labor" -- coercive control efforts -- and beneficial social programs. The more a state spends on social programs, the more of its citizens will buy into the legitimacy of the social order, and the less it has to spend policing those citizens. By making policing vastly cheaper, the IT revolution has created a new wealth-disparity reality, in which it is more "cost effective" for elites to buy surveillance than it is for them to pay their share for the common good.
The neoliberal answer to this is: so what? If the rich can be richer than ever without the poor having to starve, doesn’t that mean that the system is working? Boris Johnson’s big cornflakes have been sorted to the top of the packet, and have produced so much efficiency that everyone is better off for it, just as market theory predicts.
Even if you think that hereditary dynasties and extreme wealth for the few and hereditary, extreme poverty for the many is morally fine, the reality is that extreme wealth concentration distorts policy. We want policy to reflect the best available evidence, but when legislators are drawn from, and beholden to, a tiny ruling elite, they can only make evidence-based policy to the extent that the evidence doesn’t inconvenience rich people.
It’s obvious that excluding 52% of the population from public life is bad for the economy in Saudi Arabia. It’s obvious that Canada, a country characterised by huge wilderness and resource-extraction, is in terrible danger from climate change and that it’s madness for its oil-backed Tory government to dismantle its world-class climate and environment science infrastructure, literally setting fire to the archives.
It’s obvious that the finance sector is corrupt to the highest levels, and that the City is the heart of a vast criminal enterprise. It’s obvious that homeopathy is bunk, even if Prince Charles likes it.
And so on. A state that is beholden to a small number of people is also beholden to that elite’s sacred cows. It is incompatible with evidence-based policy.
Why spy? Because it’s cheaper than playing fair. Our networks have given the edge to the elites, and unless we seize the means of information, we are headed for a long age of IT-powered feudalism, where property is the exclusive domain of the super-rich, where your surveillance-supercharged Internet of Things treats you as a tenant-farmer of your life, subject to a licence agreement instead of a constitution.