Technology Brief #45
New Top Dogs, Same Old Tricks: Uncovering the Power of Big Tech, Part 2
Beware the Guise of Progressivism
By Scout Burchill
April 24, 2021
What exactly does progressivism mean nowadays? This question is worth thinking about as a consortium of tech companies have recently announced the creation of a business association called the Chamber of Progress. Positioning itself as a center-left progressive organization, it is funded by tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, Doordash, Google, Grubhub, Instacart, Twitter, Uber, Zillow and a few others. Their website describes the partnership as “a new tech industry coalition devoted to a progressive society, economy, workforce, and consumer climate.”
Beyond advocating for progressive causes, the organization aims to steer the conversation around tech regulation and Section 230, of which they oppose any reform or repeal. The Chamber’s first official policy engagement is to support the passage of two recent voting rights legislation bills (the “For the People Act” and the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act”) and to condemn voter suppression proposals that are currently pending in 43 states.
Beware the guise of progressivism. At face value, it is hard to be critical of an organization currently advocating for voting rights, however, one quick peek below the surface proves that the Chamber of Progress is just another example of Big Tech’s massive influence campaign on American politics and society. The Chamber is an exemplary case study in how progressive causes and the language of progressivism has been co-opted by corporate interests, especially over the past few years, signaling a somewhat strange but potentially momentous shift in the mainstream cultural and political landscape. The term woke washing has emerged to describe this phenomenon.
At the heart of this phenomenon is a schism between economic progressivism and cultural progressivism. True progressivism bridges this schism by melding issues of representation and injustice with an understanding of the economic system and the structures of power that produce suffering, exploitation and inequality. By adopting the language of social justice advocacy and the aesthetics of cultural progressivism, corporations and powerful people are learning to leverage the social capital of the progressive movement in order to amplify their power and cushion their bottom lines.
There are countless examples that illustrate this dynamic. For one, the Chamber claims to advocate for a more progressive workforce. Based on the track records of its corporate funders, this could mean literally anything. As previously covered here (see Tech Brief #25), tech companies like Uber, Instacart and Doordash led a massive push to defeat Prop 22 in California, which would have extended employee protections to ride-share drivers. Many tech companies profit enormously from the gig economy, offering no benefits, healthcare or protections to precarious workers often toiling for pay below the minimum wage. Some might call this innovation, progressives call it exploitation. Amazon’s notorious anti-union busting efforts are well documented and further call into question the Chamber’s meaning of a progressive workforce (see Tech Briefs #27 & #40). Needless to say, this type of exploitation disproportionately affects poor to working class black and brown communities.
Real progressivism aims to challenge centers of power and advance a vision of society in which freedom, prosperity and dignity is possible for all. The original progressive movement was forged out of the excesses of the Gilded Age. The second industrial revolution which started in the late 1800s led to an astounding degree of wealth inequality that concentrated power in the hands of a small group of elites. Think Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Fords, etc. As growing corporate power threatened individual freedom as well as the opportunity to make a dignified living, progressive reformers emerged to fight for a more equitable society and a fairer economic system for poor and working class people.
President Biden has warned of the dangers of the fourth industrial revolution, or the digital revolution, and the perils it poses to middle and working class Americans. The parallels between our current political and societal ills and that of the Gilded Age are obvious to many and perhaps this is why progressivism is having such a moment in the spotlight. This reality however makes the tech world’s constant woke washing and progressive camouflaging particularly perverse and pernicious. If the richest men in the world are suddenly all progressives, then what does progressivism even mean?
The linguistic similarity between the Chamber of Progress and the Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful pro-business lobbying groups in Washington, may be merely a fluke, but it is revealing nonetheless. There is a seismic shift currently underway in our societal landscape. Movement Conservatism, the right-wing coalition made up of neoconservatives and the religious right which established political and cultural dominance under President Reagan, is beginning to unravel. In other words, the Republican Party is grasping at straws and in total disarray. Once the party of limitless deregulation, business friendly policies, and anti-government screeds, the Republican party is now engaging in an outright war of words with corporations who publicly denounce the party’s embrace of the “Big Lie” and its recent bevy of attacks on voting rights. Many in the party accuse these corporations of bowing to the ‘woke mob’ and are openly threatening to withhold corporate welfare. Their reactionary politics lacks a coherent vision and their old playbook of cutting taxes for the rich and pandering to the religious right is looking less and less feasible as a political strategy.
The political and cultural winds have shifted and progressivism is now in vogue. The centers of capital and economic power in the country have begun to coalesce around a new vision of a “progressive” society. Of course there is some sense of progress in this shifting landscape, however, there is still plenty to be wary of.
Chamber of Progress’ official site
Axios reporting on Chamber
American Economic Liberties Project on Chamber of Progress
Brief History of Progressivism
Interview with Chamber of Progress’ Founder Alex Kovacevich
President Biden on the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Republican Mob Tactics