(T)he thing that worries me…Silicon Valley’s fundamental business model, I look at it like Monopoly…Google, Airbnb, Uber, Amazon. Monopolies mean you only have one place to sell…I don’t like this winner-take-all model, this Google model. John Landgraf, CEO, FX
Kevin Durant to Join Golden State Warriors, headline NYT, July 4, 2016
Monopoly is a form – or more accurately a deformity – of relationship where power is not shared or distributed but amassed and hoarded by one side. The words “powerful elite” do not exist in a vacuum – they exist in relation to two other words: powerless, excluded. In an age where we talk incessantly about the virtues of equality, local empowerment, engagement, freedom of choice, small business and democracy, the forces of monopoly seem to be gaining ground, sowing elitist seeds that make society’s relationships more volatile. Surely none of us play a role in all of this – or do we?
Seems Power Never Has a Bad Day
The steady march of BIG and powerful is evident in global organizations. Many are monopolistic technology providers enabled by the world wide web, unions and pacts like the European Union (EU) and United Nations that have no accountability to voters. And even player pacts that concentrate talent in the NBA (Kevin Durant, a top-five player joins Golden State who just broke the modern-era record for wins in a season).
Both political parties, regardless what they say and regardless which of the powerless and excluded they attract, are associated with BIG: big government on the left, big business on the right and big money contributed by big donors on all sides. The advantages of scale and control have led to amassed power increasingly distant and unchecked.
Unchecked power inevitably leads to abuse – and more concentrated power: “Too big to fail” banks, in a love-hate alliance with powerful monopolistic regulators, nearly wrecked the economy and yet today the top five banks are 38 percent larger than in 2008. The number of business startups is down 44 percent since 1978 and according to the latest census, 50 percent of net new businesses are concentrated in 20 of the country’s 3007 counties. The number of banks has declined from 18,000 in the 1980s to 6,400 in 2015. As our economy has grown our choices in many sectors has shrunk.
Government is a monopoly. The federal government’s IRS admits to stonewalling small conservative groups who applied for non-profit status — thus using power as a political weapon. In politics, every vote counts on election day but it is too often the votes of a few – lobbyists, big money, the powerful — that count on the governing days.
Technology is the newest face of raw, concentrated and oft-times narrow-minded power. Senator Elizabeth Warren called for an investigation last week into how Google, Apple and Amazon are using their power to stifle startups. Facebook – largest social media site in the universe – workers admitsuppressing conservative stories from “trending.” Apple and Uber make headlines by refusing to partner and provide tech support to the 2016 GOP Convention citing disagreements with presidential nominee Donald Trump. Good thing they weren’t asked to bake a wedding cake. And, survivors of the “upgrade” to Microsoft Windows 10 might testify to what it is like to be technologically water-boarded.
If power corrupts, more concentrated, monopolized power corrupts absolutely. We have a word for the powerful exerting their “wisdom” and will over the less powerful – bully.
Resistance and Revolt Against Power
Put the word BIG in front of about any organizational species and its appeal shrinks: big business, big labor, big oil, big Pharma, big government and now big tech. Revolt is the age-old response to imbalanced power. The decision by voters, despite the pleadings and warnings of most Great Britain leaders, to leave the EU is but the latest example of a revolt against the elite ruling class: politicians, bankers, lawyers, media, experts, intellectuals.
Closer to home, the rise of unconventional presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump shared a common indictment of conventional corporate and political power – “rigged.” Certainly anger by the black community toward police reflects a perceived misuse of power. We have a word for those habitually powerless who at times may become self-destructive – victim.
Monopoly Power – Undermines Relationship
It may be inevitable that our larger, more complicated world produced larger, more powerful organizations. Yet size and concentration of power alter the DNA of relationships. When power is collected in larger, central functions it means someone – voluntarily or not – gives up power. When stakeholders lose power, relationships become less engaged and productive, and potentially more rebellious and disruptive.
Freedom to choose when there are no choices is no freedom at all. As Henry Ford said about his cars, “any color you want so long as it is black.” We have a word for being relationally captive – prisoner.
Elitist monopolies yield three relationally destructive roles: bully, victim and prisoner.
The Question We Must Ask
It is time to ask ourselves: How are my actions contributing to destructive bullying, victimization and entrapped prisoners? Former President Bush at the memorial for five ambushed police officers in Dallas said, “Too often we judge others by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” While much is said about financial inequality, here are five potential sources of elitist power that might have snuck into our lives that leave others feeling excluded and abused:
Financial: stereotypically rich types exerting financial muscle that leaves others feeling poor.
Intellectual: often academics, the media, and educated professions – lawyers, consultants, other learned experts – that silence ideas and beliefs by making others feel stupid.
Cultural: artists, writers, entertainment personalities – the kings of cool that make others feel uncool.
Religious: theological or secular elites – church leaders, writers, speakers – who use teachings to make others feel judged, racist and even condemned.
Political: politicians, pundits, bloggers, lobbyists, consultants who make others feel impotent.
The mass production of today’s victim society is enabled by those in the business of making others feel poor, stupid, uncool, judged and impotent. It is uncanny how often the powerful started out championing the “little guy” and somewhere along the way became oppressors.
To paraphrase Pogo: I have met the elitist and it is me.