The New Measure of Inequality: Life in a Protection Bubble

The economic, political and power consolidation beneficiaries of 21st-century hyper-corruption exist in the latest manifestation of inequality: a Darth Vader-style protection bubble. 


Tuca Vieira

 

Lisa Van Dusen

July 5, 2021

There have long been different ways of measuring economic inequality, including by income, by consumption and by wealth. The commonly used tool for quantifying national inequality is the Gini coefficient, a statistical measure representing wealth distribution. A Gini coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality, i.e. everyone in a country has the same income. A Gini coefficient of 100 expresses maximal inequality, i.e. one person holding all the wealth. According to the World Population Review, Canada’s current 2021 Gini coefficient is 33.3, the United States’ Gini is 41.1. At the extremes of the inequality spectrum, for context, are South Africa at 63.0 and the Faroe Islands at 22.7.

As has been regularly reported, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have acted as force multipliers on economic inequality, amplifying the pre-existing socioeconomic impacts of the wealth gap, from racial and income disparities in health and education outcomes to the digital divide that now separates the information, communication, upward mobility, social capital and, increasingly, health care access haves from the have-nots. The understandable policy response to this has been to boost broadband access, but without addressing in any meaningful, substantive way what the digitization of every aspect of our lives means for privacy, freedom, broader human rights, democracy and the distribution of power.

As Oxfam pointed out in its January report, The Inequality Virus, the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly good to the Gini-skewing super-wealthy, especially the Big Tech surveillance capitalists whose reshaping of the economy has been accelerated by the mass migration to digital life propelled by the pandemic. The marquee headline from that report was that the world’s ten richest men have seen their combined wealth increase by half a trillion dollars since the pandemic began — “more than enough to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone and to ensure no one is pushed into poverty by the pandemic.” That was six months ago.

This inequality big bang comes after years during which power has been gradually shifting from democratically elected leaders to autocrats in some countries and to corruption-captured, counterfeit democrats in others, combining a concentration of wealth that exploits human beings with a corrupt consolidation of power that disenfranchises them.

In a recent Project Syndicate piece, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, whom you may recall from his viral turn as the glabrous, motorcycle-riding rebel of the 2015 Greek bailout melodrama, warned that capitalism as we know it is being replaced by “techno-feudalism”. “Today, the global economy is powered by the constant generation of central bank money, not by private profit,” Varoufakis writes in Techno-Feudalism is Taking Over. “Meanwhile, value extraction has increasingly shifted away from markets and onto digital platforms, like Facebook and Amazon, which no longer operate like oligopolistic firms, but rather like private fiefdoms or estates.”

This inequality big bang comes after years during which power has been gradually shifting from democratically elected leaders to autocrats in some countries and to corruption-captured, counterfeit democrats in others, combining a concentration of wealth that exploits human beings with a corrupt consolidation of power that disenfranchises them.

In fact, if the Big Tech virtual monopolies were comparable to private fiefdoms, the tally of winners and losers of both the fourth industrial revolution and of the pandemic would look quite different. Since their power comes from the commodification of the gap between the value proposition they present to users who have limited options beyond subscription — socially, professionally and/or market-wise — and the value proposition they present to their true constituency of legitimate advertisers, propagandists and intelligence extractors, their status as the new oligarchs makes private fiefdoms look like kibbutzim.

The emerging titans of techno-feudalism and the interests whose power has been corruptly consolidated along with theirs function in a context unprecedented for its self-perpetuating inequality — a sort of Darth Vader protection bubble that minimizes consequences and maximizes impunity.

The decoupling of the stock market from the economy in which the vast majority of people function or struggle to, and its post-internet evolution from organic representation of value to the flash-trading, short-selling racket it is today, protects them from what was a key, conventional behaviour modification input. The fragmentation of public information sources, the concerted attack on truth, the social-media facilitated geyser of misinformation, the post-internet economic embolization of media organizations and their increasing ownership by entities serving their own agendas rather than the public interest, have largely protected them — at least until relatively recently — from inconvenient, bubble-bursting truths. The lag between the internet-enabled innovations in enterprise, financial crime, cultural monopoly, public perception manipulation, tax avoidance, propaganda dissemination, democracy hacking and crimes against humanity and the body of national and international laws governing all of the above has protected them, so far, from significant, inhibiting legal consequence.

The hyper-corruption that has wreaked havoc in democratic processes and distorted outcomes in politics, business, security, public health and other realms has also redefined the perception of what can be gotten away with, reinforcing the protection bubble with a presumed cushion against public disapprobation. The next level of that presumption is the sort of punitive, microtargeted, surveillance-state bullying currently unfolding in areas where the absence of democracy removes any pretense of human rights considerations, creating the opposite of a protection bubble where any violation, harassment or miscarriage of justice can be perpetrated with impunity. In the past 24 hours, for instance, Reuters has reported that the democracy-obstructing junta in Myanmar is preventing international telecom executives from leaving the country unless they install spyware that will allow the military “to listen in on calls, view text messages, and web traffic including emails, and track the locations of users without the assistance of the telecom and internet firms.”

All of which, twenty years into this new century, prompts an ugly variation on a reassuring, long-ago tag line. If, in some parts of the world, you don’t have to answer to the public in the form of 21st-century regulations, laws, or un-corrupted elections, why not be evil?

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine. She was Washington columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP National in New York and UPI in Washington.