Above photo: Richard Wolff.
Increased social media and tech censorship must be understood in the wider context of the establishment desperately seeking to hold on to what used to be called “the vital centre”, a US-based author and economist tells Sputnik.
Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, author, and founder of the non-profit Democracy At Work. Recent Facebook posts made by Democracy at Work were blocked from being shared via the social media platform, adding to the growing list of censorship and quasi-censorship that has become commonplace online.
Professor Wolff’s weekly show Economic Update is syndicated on over 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. In a detailed interview with Sputnik, he explained why such behaviour by internet giants must be understood as part of a wider collapse of the economic system, and the attempts of those who already hold power to reaffirm and consolidate their ever weakening position.
Sputnik: Explain what exactly happened regarding Facebook, censoring of the article that you posted.
Professor Richard Wolff: Yes, it was very strange for us. We have been active on Facebook for many years, doing a variety of political, economic analyses, nothing in the recent situation was different in any significant or basic way from what we have been doing for years. During all that time, we never had the slightest difficulty with Facebook, nor they with us that we were aware of. So it came as a complete surprise that basically what they did is blocked people who liked what we had posted from sharing it with their friends in the usual way that Facebook functions. You don’t get much explanation from Facebook when you inquire about these things. It’s happened to several times now, all in the recent period. And so, we’re assuming that there’s some algorithms, some rule that somebody is applying somewhere. So that certain words in our posting set off a constriction of this sort, because as I say, we haven’t changed our basic arguments or methods, or even the tone of what we do. Otherwise, I could make a guess maybe it would be this or that particular, argument or this or that particular posting, but it makes no sense there isn’t anything that’s changed. So that’s our best guess as to what’s going on.
Facebook has come under a great deal of public scrutiny around the world, not just in the United States, in fact, more so in other parts of the world than in the United States, but [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg and the others are on the defensive and our suspicion is that they’re going to be very, very careful. I don’t know whether our politics, we are on the left, whether that played much of a role here or not, [it] could have been, but as I say, you’re not given much of an explanation, so it’s mostly guesswork.
Sputnik Could you just describe the nature of the post itself?
Professor Richard Wolff: There was a strike in Brooklyn, New York, I’m talking to you from New York City in the United States, involving about 1,400 workers represented by the Teamsters Union. In fact, there’s a bigger example right now in the state of Alabama, a place where 5,000 workers are in the middle of voting to have a union or not. So again, it’s not a unique experience. It’s not the first time it’s happened. And we were commenting on the economic and political significance of this growing wave of efforts by low-income workers to form unions, because it’s a remarkable phenomenon of American history.
Sputnik: Did Facebook end up reversing his decision or reversing the block they had on sharing the article as far as, you know?
Professor Richard Wolff: As far as I know it’s on again and off again. It’s not, as best we can tell, it’s not over because it continues to happen, but it’s not continuous either. It’s very bizarre.
Sputnik: Does it continue to happen with other posts or just with this post?
Professor Richard Wolff: No, I believe it’s been happening with one or two other posts as well.
Sputnik: We’ve been seeing an ever-increasing amount of censorship, quasi-censorship, and downranking of alternative and independent content over the last few years, by social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and search engines like Google. YouTube, for example, has actually admitted that what they do is preference so-called authoritative content, and then downward grade, so-called borderline content or material they determine to be less authoritative. Those impacted include foreign outlets like Sputnik and RT, but also US based outlets like The Grayzone, The Jimmy Dore Show, comedian and satirist Graham Elwood’s Political Vigilante YouTube channel and many others.
Why do you think that this has been happening and there is such an increase over the last few years?
Professor Richard Wolff: Well, as usual, there is more than one factor that plays a role in here. I’ve mentioned already the greater scrutiny that Facebook, Twitter and the others are getting, which is of course long overdue. These are enormous monopolies, effectively, in this country or near oligopolies, if not monopolies. They had been extremely rich producers of wealth, even during the pandemic, when so many other businesses collapsed. So many people were out of work, the spectacle of the growing wealth of those who have big positions in these companies, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and all of it, is a glaring inequality in a society that says everybody’s in it together to fight COVID-19. I mean, we’re obviously not in it together because we’re not experiencing anything remotely, like the same, suffering or the same losses, or the same gains for that matter.
But I would like to stress a different argument, that I think is at least as important, if not more so. The political structure of the United States is disintegrating as is its economic system. I’m a professional economist. I’ve been a professor of economics, all my adult life. I study the United States economy, the world economy, the United States position in it. I have never seen a collection of economic conditions and circumstances as challenging as those I see now. And I’ve never seen as weak a capacity to respond, as I see now. That’s a very, very dangerous combination. Let me bring it very concretely to your attention. The United States has 4 per cent of the world’s population and 20 per cent of the world’s COVID deaths, 25 per cent of the world’s COVID cases. This is a very rich country with a highly developed medical community and it is a disaster in facing this pandemic, that has to be explained.
And however much you may enjoy blaming this or that politician, Mr. Trump, or somebody else. It’s never that, it’s a much deeper kind of situation. As if to prove my point, we had fires in the west coast of the United States over the last 24 months that we’ve never seen before and an incapacity to cope with them we’ve never seen before. Two weeks ago, one of the largest States in the union, Texas fell apart as an institutional place, for millions of people because the local energy companies had not prepared for cold weather and therefore lost the electricity on the basis of which you could not heat your home in cold weather. You could not bring water out of the ground. It was a level of dysfunction that is stupefying. [We also have] 20 plus million people, unemployed. Many of them that have been unemployed the entire year, now since March of 2020. Now we are in March of 2021. They’d been for a long amount of time. They have used up whatever savings they might’ve had. They have become burdens on their family, their neighbourhoods, their relationships, their friendships, these jobs are not coming back in huge numbers. Many of the central cities in the United States are half of boarded up, with stores and restaurants and so forth that cannot function. This is an extraordinary situation and it has provoked the following political breakdown. And that’ll get me to my explanation of what Facebook is doing.
We have had, and this is not a big surprise, a polarisation of our politics. Masses and masses of people, becoming personally aware of the breakdown of the economy and the break down of this society’s institutions, are frightened, are upset, are angry. It made it possible for Mr. Trump to become president. He could not have done so without that. He provided classical scapegoat explanations for the suffering. It’s classical nationalism. It is the foreigner who has made these bad things happen to us. It’s the foreigner in the form of immigrants coming from Latin America. It’s the foreigner in terms of the Chinese, with whom we are trading and investing, but they are cheating us. It’s the Russians who are hacking our elections. It’s the Europeans who are cheating us in trade agreement. I mean, the whole world of ‘the foreign’ is taking advantage of us, hurting us, impeding us impinging upon us, very old, very classic attempt to use nationalism to shore up support for capitalism. Because the important point here is to get people not to blame the system for the failures of the system.
But you also have it on the left. Because you have, for example, the stunning political reality that after 75 years in the United States, when no politician could allow the word socialist to be applied to his or her name, because it would be an immediate end of your political career, you can go nowhere with that. So suddenly we had the Occupy Wall Street movement, in 2011, which put the issue of economic inequality at the front, the way socialists typically do. They didn’t quite call themselves socialists, but nobody missed what they were doing. And then four or five years later, Bernie Sanders runs for president as a socialist. And he did it again in 2020 with more success. And now we have, you know, eight or 10 socialists, openly calling themselves that, elected to the Congress of the United States, becoming a caucus, et cetera. These are things that are breaking down the middle. The middle that ran this country, for the last century and a half. You might call them centre-left, centre-right. It’s the establishment of the Republican and Democratic parties. They are losing their base. Mr. Trump defeated them inside the Republican party. And Bernie Sanders came close to doing that, did not succeed, but way better performance than anyone had foreseen.
So the middle is in trouble. And the word you used a moment ago, “authoritative”, that’s a synonym for the middle. And what you’re beginning to see is all kinds of institutions, reacting, hoping desperately to restrengthen, reinforce, save the middle from disappearing as the right wing Trump and so on captures the Republicans, and as the left wing becomes progressively more important. And what the great fear [of] the left is, and which may be a hint in terms of our case, is that if there were a resurgence of the labour movement together with this growth of socialism, you would have the ingredients to produce on the left, something comparable to Trump on the right. And therefore labour struggles may become something to be quiet about, something to hesitate around.
The alternative strategy, which you also see in play now in the United States, is the decision of the democratic establishment to try to control and build alliances with an emerging labour movement, in order that it does not go over to the socialists. These kinds of struggles are going on, and my suspicion, and that’s all it is I have no inside information, but that what you’re seeing in the way of the censorship exercised by social media is that they are in line, whether they are conscious of it or not, whether this is an explicit arrangement they’ve made among themselves — there’s no way for me to know that, but it is more than coincidence, I would suspect, that they are trying to keep messages from the far right and the far left away so that they could go back to holding on to what they used to call ‘the vital centre’.
Sputnik: So you think the wider implications of these social media and tech crackdowns are….?
Professor Richard Wolff: I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere, that the upset of the population is going to make people angry at the social media [companies] because of what they’re doing, rather than quietly accepted. It’s becoming more and more of an issue, it’s actually making it possible for people on the right and left to agree on something, about this censorship, because they both feel aggrieved. That possibility, of that kind of a coalition, if I were a planner or a thinker in the middle, I am not, but if I were, I would be extremely worried… I would be worried that this imposition of censorship, or whatever you want to call it, trying to hold up the middle by choosing what is authoritative and what isn’t, this is a very dangerous manoeuvre and has the potential —and I believe it’s the likely outcome, that it will provoke the left, it will provoke the right. It will enable the left and the right to agree that this is not acceptable and therefore boomerang on the centre, making their control of the situation more difficult, not less.
Sputnik: What would you say are the wider implications of the increased censorship and quasi censorship that we’ve been seeing on social media?
Professor Richard Wolff: Well, I think we’re in that point where I can say with some confidence that it’s not gonna work. Several years ago, I would not have said that. I would have been much more unclear about whether it will work or not. But now I’m quite clear it will not work, I mean, of course I could be wrong, but the reason is that the economic disintegration is underway and that’s not going to be changed anytime soon. Nor are they taking the steps to change it, nor do they have a plan for how to change it. If you look closely at the Biden administration, its basic strategy is to go back to where we were before Trump. To get back to “normal”. Well, I find that absolutely revealing, because the “normal” before Trump that’s what brought us to Trump. And if you recreate what that was, you are paving the way for the next Trump, whether the man is Trump or some other person, who cares. The reality is that this is an economy that has become terribly unstable, even more than usual, and more unequal than we have been in a century.
I mean, we’ve had three crashes of capitalism in the 21st century, the so-called dot com crash in 2000, the subprime mortgage crash in 2008, and now the COVID crash in 2020. Each crash has the name of an external event. Nobody should be fooled, if it hadn’t been those particular events, it would have been another event. Capitalism breaks down every four to seven years and it has for 300 years. We’ve had three, in the 20 years of this century, that works out to one in every seven years on average, right on time. But each one was worse than the one before. And this one is a really disastrous one. And again, under new circumstance, the incapacity of our society to know that these are coming, to take the steps to plan, to manage the crises we know are coming. That failure shows you a deep incapacity. To at the same time, fail to handle [the] COVID pandemic as stunningly as we failed as a nation, so that you have a public health crisis on top of a capitalist economic crisis, this is a sign of a system whose problems have become too many, too large, too much accumulated over time, so that the political splitting and disintegration is much more tied to underlying economic changes, than some policies about social media access could possibly reverse.