Imagine Jeff Bezos cloned 7.5 times. That would be the equivalent of the financial wealth of everyone in Scotland (including everything; pensions, properties, etc). Maybe even less, as the Scottish financial wealth calculation (£1.097 trillion) was in 2018 – after the pandemic crisis it has probably shrunk quite a bit.
Bezos doesn’t have that problem. It might be economic meltdown for the rest of us, butt Jeff is rolling in it. He has increased his wealth to $189.3 billion (£148.5 billion) this week, after a record-breaking $13 billion increase in just one day as Amazon’s share price took off on Tuesday. The Independent Labour Organisation predicts that in the second quarter of 2020 alone the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs were lost worldwide, with the UN finding 132 million people may have been pushed into hunger from a crisis that some have described as the sharpest in the history of capitalism, but the world’s richest man has added $74 billion to his bank account this year.
It’s not only Jeff. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has added almost $15 billion this year. Elon Musk of Tesla has added $47 billion. The data titans make up seven of the ten richest people on the planet, and they have all had a very good crisis as the pandemic has accelerated trends towards digitalisation worldwide. Just as in the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century in the US, where companies like Standard Oil became monopolies and thus generated ludicrous wealth for its owner John D. Rockefeller, the digital age of capitalism we are now in is doing the same for the platform kings, many of whom have built monopoly positions which are virtually unchallengeable within the ‘free market’.
However, it’s likely to be more difficult to dislodge Jeff than it was John. Standard Oil was broken up in 1911, split into smaller parts, but that’s easier to do with a physical commodity like oil. The thing about a company like Amazon is that it controls large parts of digital infrastructure that the internet and the companies which operate on it are based on. The interconnectedness of the digital sphere and the fact it is much less inhibited by space and time means breaking it’s infrastructure into bite-sized chunks is not straight-forward. Platforms like Facebook have become monopolies exactly because it makes sense to do social networking on one site; ‘network effects’ mean the bigger a platform becomes the more useful it is as a service.
Plus, the US isn’t interested in weakening its own capitalists. In fact, it works very hard at preventing other countries, including the UK and France, from taxing US platforms, threatening them with trade retaliation if they try to make Jeff pay a bit more. And if the US won’t rein in their own platforms, who else has the power to do it? The EU is a regulatory super-power, but the decision of Europe’s second highest court to over-turn a Commission ruling that Apple had to pay a £11.6 billion tax bill to the Irish Government highlights the limits of its control. The backing of the Republic of Ireland – which argued against Apple paying it £11.6 billion to protect its position as a tax haven in the EU for global corporates to Headquarter – also helped.
The RoI example highlights the dilemma for smaller countries in how to deal with the Jeff Bezos problem – should they embrace the plutocracy, or fight it? The shock victory for the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, a left critic of the tax haven model, in the February General Election in the Republic of Ireland shows the growing unhappiness with Dublin selling itself to the tech monopolists, especially as it has one of the worst housing crises in Europe (a not unconnected phenomenon). There is also a solidarity question here – there’s few things less internationalist than undermining the rest of Europe’s tax base so you can get the limited benefits of Apple basing itself in your country.
Scotland could take a different approach. It could seek to democratise the country’s data by monitoring and regulating its use. It could ensure all public-sector digital infrastructure is open source and avoid reliance on tech monopolies for procurement. It could face down threats from the US and establish a tax on a per centage of global turnover in return for being allowed to operate in the country. It could support the development of not-for-profit alternative digital platforms in sectors like culture (imagine a Scottish Netflix, or local authority based Uber). It could strengthen the rights of digital tech workers to organise and control their biometric data at work. None of this would keep Jeff awake at night, but it might halt the rise of mini-Jeff’s in Scotland. If nothing else, at least there would be some dignity in it.
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