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How Silicon Valley Conquered the Post-Cold War Consensus

Alex Williams and Jeremy Gilbert on the Marriage of Big Tech and Big Finance

Where is power today? Who or what has power in the world? How is it exercised, and how do we recognize it when we see it? Perhaps the simplest, crudest, way to answer this question is to ask, “Who is able to get what they want?” What individuals or institutions can produce outcomes that seem to be in line with their intentions, interests and preferences? Who is getting the world that they want?

Right now, as at any other moment in history, the active term here would be getting: we could probably never say that anyone has definitely got the world that they want. So, a useful question we can ask is: who seems to have come out best from recent conflicts over the question of what kind of world we should live in?

At least since the early 1990s (up until 2016), we have been living through a period when there were very few effective challenges even attempted to the worldwide extension of a particular economic system and the assumptions that animate it, which is known as neoliberalism. In global terms, the last such period of struggle ended with the defeat of Soviet Communism and the decision by the Chinese Communist Party to take its country on a capitalist road.

In Latin America there have been periods of genuine popular resistance to neoliberalism that have crystallized for a time in the programs of genuinely radical socialist governments; but at the time of writing almost all of those programs have been terminated. In the Middle East and elsewhere, forms of religious conservatism have emerged in opposition to the cultural norms most closely associated with Western liberalism and neoliberalism, but have not posed a serious threat to its core economic agenda.

A useful question we can ask is: who seems to have come out best from recent conflicts over the question of what kind of world we should live in?

In the global North, the last period of really sustained social conflict was that stretching from the moment of the break-up of the “post-war consensus” to the crystallization of a socially liberal, cosmopolitan, neoliberal consensus in the early 1990s. The term “culture wars” emerged as a key term of political debate in the early 1990s, describing what was arguably the final phase of this period, after the global political defeat of the organized left had put fundamental economic questions out of contention, and before it had become clear that a socially and culturally conservative form of neoliberalism would prove both too unpopular and too internally contradictory to be sustainable.

The phrase was used by commentators to refer to the set of intense political conflicts—over “social” issues such as reproductive rights, the legal status of gay people and their relationships, attempts by public institutions to combat institutionalized racism, etc.—that defined much political debate at that time in the United States, and (to a lesser extent) other countries such as the UK.

This term has remained memorable because it captures, succinctly and evocatively, the sense of an existential conflict between competing visions of the world. It seems clear enough in retrospect that the “cultural” issues at its heart aroused such strong feelings partly because this was merely the terminal phase of a longer and more wide-ranging conflict. In that larger struggle, almost everything had been at stake. The questions of what kind of world, what kind of economy, what kind of society, what distribution of power would replace the post-war order had all been on the table. This was all prior to the final collapse of the Soviet experiment in 1991, the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 (the express purpose of which was always to enforce American-led neoliberalism on a global scale).

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It would be naive to imagine any constituency ever getting exactly what they think they want. Actual historic outcomes are almost always incomplete and inconclusive. “The world” at any given moment is the product of the complex interaction of multiple forces, and the outcomes of contests and struggles are an effect of the relative strength of the contending forces over time. But that doesn’t mean that there are never winners at all. The real culture wars of the 1970s were not won by either of the most obviously contending sides: the New Left radicals or the reactionary conservatives. In fact, the clear winners were the corporate technology sector, large financial institutions, and (to a lesser extent) the Chinese Communist Party.

Within even the very early culture of Silicon Valley, a distinctive tension could be discerned between the “hacker ethic”—with its commitment to entirely free and open information, born as it was in a university laboratory—and the entrepreneurial drive to protect intellectual property. This was not a superficial short-term contradiction, but a defining productive tension that continues to animate the entire domain of networked and computer-driven social and economic relationships.

This tension is in part related to the complex class status of the individuals and companies making up the tech sector from the moment of its commercial inception. To the extent that they are engaged in activities whose long-term objective is capital accumulation, there is always a need to protect property and profits; to the extent that they are engaged in a social project to extend human capacities through the advance of computer technology, there is a certain drive to share information irrespective of profits. At the same time, even within the processes of accumulation, there are complex and paradoxical imperatives to protect property and to disseminate it. Hardware manufacturers have an interest in the free distribution of software.

Platform capitalists need to attract users to be able to sell their data and attention to advertisers, to the point that it is in their interests to make entry costs to the platforms themselves as low as possible. These are the principal reasons why the behavior and ideological priorities of Silicon Valley actors are, and always have been, in certain senses simply typical of those of capitalists in general, but in other cases distinctive and unique.

This complex of historical events and transformations can be seen by the 1990s to have produced some very clear winners: most notably the tech and finance sectors. But what exactly did they win?

Taken all together, these features amount to a very distinctive cluster of interests and preferences; and it is difficult to discern any significant way in which the general direction of social change and public policy has failed to serve them since the 1980s. The general tendency towards social liberalization has been effected by means of a general individualization and privatization of culture that clearly expresses the priorities of Silicon Valley libertarianism far more fully than it conforms to the forms of collectivist liberation once dreamed of by the counterculture and the New Left.

We live today in a world in which the vast bulk of the manufacturing industry once based in the Western economies has now relocated to China. Was this the dream of Nixon, Thatcher, and their successors, when the former opened diplomatic negotiations with China and the latter undertook her assault on the British labor movement, and the manufacturing sector that was its base? No. Ultimately, it is hard to see who on the planet (apart, arguably, from certain Chinese elites), has benefitted from this shift more than the American technology industry. At the same time, the social and political influence of that industry has hardly been used to defend the traditional forms of authority and morality to which both Nixon and Thatcher were committed.

It is true that the great geopolitical objective of the American military-industrial complex—total victory over the USSR—was achieved. So perhaps we could argue that the military state should be understood as one of those actors on the political stage of the early 1970s that finally achieved the world it was looking for. But it is hard to believe that any key figure in the US security state of the early 70s would have rest easy in the knowledge that the ultimate destiny of the USA was to win the Cold War, but to find itself with a historically unprecedented trade and debt deficit to China.

Even the extraordinary success of the Communist Party of China itself has been bought at the expense of a complete reversal of many of the Maoist precepts to which its cadres were clearly still committed in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. This has been to the advantage, no doubt, of many Chinese capitalists. But above all it has been to the advantage of Silicon Valley, that would be entirely unable to function as profitably as it does without the low-cost manufacturing of computer and communications hardware in China. It is this that enabled that spread of computing, and its ubiquitous penetration of everyday life, is the single most striking historical change of the period.

Like any section of the capitalist class, the tech sector is never fully independent of capital in general; above, all of the power and priorities of finance. Indeed, until recently, it was the ascendancy of finance capital that appeared to be the real story of global politics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The restoration of Wall Street and the rise of Silicon Valley have been deeply intertwined, it is true, but the two cannot be regarded as a simple, self-sufficient continuity. Before examining their relationship, however, it is worth rehearsing the key role played by finance capital in the transformation of the world since the early 1970s.

The dissolution of the Bretton Woods system, 1971-3, marked a pivotal moment in the global crisis of post-war Fordist capitalism. There’s little question that this marks the moment when the restoration of finance capital begins, culminating with the major deregulations of the financial industries undertaken by Thatcher and Reagan in the second half of the 1980s. But it is also precisely the moment when the ascendancy of Silicon Valley really begins.

The high-tech industry has been present in the Bay Area and the regions to its south since the early twentieth century, and all of the key technologies that would drive the computer revolution (the computer, the microprocessor, networking, the mouse, the personal terminal, etc.) had been developed, mainly by military-funded university labs, by the end of the 1960s. But the beginnings of the personal computer industry as such, and a massive escalation in the use of computers by government and corporations, can be dated to exactly this historical moment.

The restoration of Wall Street and the rise of Silicon Valley have been deeply intertwined, it is true, but the two cannot be regarded as a simple, self-sufficient continuity.

This complex of historical events and transformations can be seen by the 1990s to have produced some very clear winners: most notably the tech and finance sectors. But what exactly did they win?

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What was won was a position of strategic superiority in the whole assemblage of global society. This is the position from which the tech and financial sectors have been able to exert influence on the general direction of travel for culture, economics, and politics. This influence is most obviously registered at the level of material culture. What more evident transformation in the physical and corporeal texture of everyday life has there been in recent years, for almost all humans, than the ubiquitous spread of digital screens of various sizes? What more obvious change in lived culture has there been than the shift of huge quantities of specialized and general communicative activity onto the world wide web?

At the same time, it is hard to think of any social sector that has enjoyed more obvious deference from government than tech. The almost complete lack of regulation of social media platforms by the US government speaks volumes in itself. It is no accident that it isn’t until immediately after 2016 that an urgent conversation develops across the developed world about the need to regulate the platform economy.

At the same time, the tech sector, from this position of strategic superiority, has exercised all kinds of direct and indirect influence over the culture of the contemporary world, on many levels and with many regional variations. If a certain combination of cosmopolitan liberalism, entrepreneurial individualism and networked collegiality has become the common culture of global elites, then it is through this mechanism more than any other. It is surely no accident that it was during the ascendancy of tech as the globally most influential fraction of capital, that the professional political class became almost uniformly committed to this combination of values and attitudes as the ones that they sought to embody, exemplify, and propagate.

Of course, in producing these effects, big technology has never acted alone (at least, as we will suggest, until very recently). It is only through its alliance with the financial sector that it has been able to achieve global reach, just as finance was only able to restore its power by deploying the new digital technologies. Many of the values, agendas and policy commitments that achieved global influence during this time were ones that had historically been typical of finance capital during periods of socio-political ascendancy.

Faced with historical crises, of course, finance has been prepared to make alliances with the worst fascists (who could not have committed their atrocities without its support). But outside of such periods, when facing no immediate threat from the workers’ movement or from governments intent on regulation, finance in its pomp has tended to favor a relatively cosmopolitan and socially liberalizing culture: one suited to a world of international frictionless flows of people, money and products.

The Long 90s—the period of relative cultural and political stasis lasting from the early 1990s to around 2015—was as much the ultimate epoch of global finance capital as it was the period of Silicon Valley’s ascendancy. This fact is attested in the relentless spread of “financialization” to so many areas of social life. This term designates the ways in which many types of activity, service and commodity have become objects of speculation and have become funded and fundable only through the creation and propagation of new forms of debt and indebtedness. The fact that so much of families’ and individuals consumption is today clearly funded by borrowing is the most obvious example of this process in action, and obviously benefits lenders (which is what finance capitalists primarily are), more than anyone else.

The point is simply this: the kinds of power that we have been describing the tech-finance bloc as exercising are absolutely typical of hegemonic power, and exemplify the ways that hegemony operates in the 21st century.

This analysis paints a picture of a particular coalition of social forces operating effectively as the leading force in capitalist societies since the 1980s. Such a process of leadership, diffuse and complex in form, is what we broadly refer to when we use the term “hegemony.” Hegemony is the process by which discrete groups or networks come to guide the development of society in the service of a set of interests. The type of coalition of “class fractions” that we have been describing is precisely what Antonio Gramsci described as constituting “social blocs.” A good example of a social bloc that acquired systemic hegemony is the coalition between trade unions and manufacturers that was able to pressure governments from the 1930s to the 1970s into pursuing growth-led economic strategies that favored manufacturing and full employment.

A social bloc is normally thought of as operating within the confines of a specific national polity. Our use of the term differs slightly, but we see it merely as a direct extension of the concept that is appropriate to contemporary conditions. On the one hand, the tech/finance historic bloc is mainly an alliance of different sections of the capitalist class, on the other hand, it clearly includes members of the intermediary managerial class, and members of the new petit bourgeoisie (notably small-scale tech and media entrepreneurs).

This coalition of groups have worked together to transform the world into one which enforces their values and pursues their interests, through a variety of mechanisms from those operating at the level of ideology, through to the infrastructure that operates as a platform for everyday life and society at large. It is clearly global in its reach and international in nature; yet it also has a particular local political base in the United States, where both Silicon Valley and Wall Street can be found.

In the Gramscian sense, “hegemony” is best understood as a strategic position of “leadership,” conferring on the hegemonic force the capacity to determine the general direction of travel of a given social formation. Maintaining that capacity is dependent on many factors: the co-operation of other groups, the resources at the disposal of the hegemonic force, etc. It depends to some extent on the “consent” of those non-ruling groups.

Political consent does not need to take the form of straightforward active enthusiastic endorsement of the authority and aims of the hegemony. It can often be largely passive in nature, a matter of compliance and casual participation rather than explicit support. Hegemonic leadership is therefore always complex in nature: including domination and consent, and the great grey expanse in-between. For now, the point is simply this: the kinds of power that we have been describing the tech-finance bloc as exercising are absolutely typical of hegemonic power, and exemplify the ways that hegemony operates in the 21st century.

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Excerpted from Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (and How We Win It Back) by Alex Williams and Jeremy Gilbert. Copyright © 2022. Available from Verso Books.

Alex Williams and Jeremy Gilbert
Alex Williams and Jeremy Gilbert
Alex Williams is a political theorist and lecturer in digital media and society currently based at the University of East Anglia. His writings include Political Hegemony and Social Complexity, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (with Nick Srnicek), as well as numerous articles on the future of left politics and contemporary formations of digital power.

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural & Political Theory at the University of East London. He is the author of Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism, Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics and Twenty-First Century Socialism. He writes regularly in the British press, is the current editor of the journal New Formations, and hosts three regular podcasts: #ACFM (on Novara Media); Love is the Message,; Culture, Power, Politics.





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