The Smartest Guys in the Room
Updated: Aug 23
One of the most popular tropes in science fiction is the machines taking over. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Terminator to The Matrix, we love to regale ourselves with tales warning of what might happen if the machines gain sentience and decide they no longer have any use for us. The recent innovations in AI have once again sparked the imagination with such fantasies. Predictions already abound as to what professions will be made obsolete by this new technology, including not only manual labor but the creative classes. Technology has exposed us to new dangers. The Mueller Report detailed how a coordinated campaign by Russian hackers systematically influenced the outcome of a presidential election. China has developed the most advanced surveillance technology ever known, which they use to spy on their citizens at home and abroad. Concern about the use of this technology here in the United States has been used to justify a draconian TikTok Ban that would severely regulate internet usage. It seems we are entering a brave new world of technology for which we are woefully unprepared.
Perhaps, however, we should be a little less concerned about technology itself than the people behind it. Why are we more worried about the machines ruling over us than the flesh-and-blood humans who already do? Economic inequality has never been higher, and it’s only getting worse. The pharaohs of Egypt never had so much power as the Fortune 500 list. If one looks at the top 10 richest people in the world, one will find such names as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, all from the tech industry. They have all launched empires based on technologies that connect us to each other and to information, all while gathering and commodifying our own information to be sold back to us as targeted advertising. Our daily lives have become informationalized. We are bits of data floating around in cyberspace. Everything about us is tracked, analyzed, collateralized, and traded for profit. We are all commodities.
Humans are a technical species. Our hominid ancestors were the first to make fire and stone tools. Since then, we have seen the wheel, the pyramids, the car and plane. In fact, we classify different historical epochs by their prevailing technological base. We have the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and so on. Since at least 1492, Europeans have measured their superiority as a civilization by their advanced technical knowledge and achievements, especially compared to the “savages” who were seen as more animal than human. The technological accomplishments of these peoples have themselves been downplayed and dismissed, but even to engage in this argument is to concede to the premise that technical knowledge is the true measure of human excellence.
An advanced civilization, we tell ourselves, is an urbanized, highly stratified one, with rational bureaucratic institutions and a clear chain of command. Such a society will naturally produce great wonders that will outlast it. It will expand to distant lands, making its name known far and wide. Its armed forces will be unstoppable because of their technical prowess and master logistics. This, we say, is what it means to be advanced. The 19th century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan proposed a map of social evolution going from primitive egalitarian bands to chiefdoms to kingdoms, culminating of course in advanced Western civilization. While this model is considered discredited by modern anthropologists, it remains influential among armchair theorists like Jared Diamond. Another person influenced by this model was Karl Marx, who used it as a basis for his historical materialism, in which societies evolved according to different modes of production, starting with the “primitive communism” of hunter-gatherers, then the despotic “Asiatic” mode of production of early civilizations, then feudalism, then capitalism. What he hoped we would achieve next would be socialism, culminating finally in communism, the free association of producers. Thus the whole trajectory of modernity in the West, both right and left, came to be viewed through a technocratic lens.
To be sure, there were dissidents. The Romantic movement saw figures like William Blake bemoan the “Satanic Mills” of factories spewing black smoke into the air. John Ruskin memorialized the Medieval era and complained that capitalism had brought more “illth” than wealth. William Morris sought to revive a sense of craftsmanship against the flattening trends of industrialization. Yet the romantic movement saw darker elements as well. Against the atomization of industrial society and breakdown of the feudal order, people developed national identities. The revolutions of 1848, when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, saw not an international proletarian revolution, but a series of national revolutions. People sought in the nation a sense of identity at a time when capitalism was leveling all identity.
Another identity to emerge was fundamentalism. Far from a holdover from a premodern world of superstition, fundamentalism is a thoroughly modern movement, seeking a fully rationalized form of religious belief expressing not only spiritual but scientific truth, objectively measurable and rationally unassailable. The rationalized clockwork universe was unquestioned. It was only necessary to assert that behind it there was an almighty watchmaker. All hope for any meaning in the universe lay in this watchmaker and His designs for creation. This watchmaker God was born with modernity itself, first with Galileo, then Descartes and Newton. Rather than God as king or father, this was God as engineer - a God of the machine.
Lewis Mumford suggested the earliest machine was made of people. This, he insisted, was no metaphor. The workers who toiled collectively to build the pyramids were every bit as much cogs in a machine as any gears or pulleys. The pyramids and ziggurats would not have been possible without this machine, but neither would the machine be possible without these wonders. The absolute despotism upon which the machine depended required for its justification great works in which all could take pride. This machine, known as the “megamachine,” would fade as centralized despotism faded into decentralized feudal and confederal power formations, but it would come back with a vengeance with the Industrial Revolution. This revolution was not merely one of production, but of power. Power itself became mechanized, rationalized, and bureaucratized.
Max Weber describes how modernity saw the transformation from charismatic and traditional authority to rational authority, in which authority lay not in the person but in the office they hold. This is expressed in the liberal ideal of the “rule of law,” in which it is laws, not people, that are sovereign, and even the highest office in the land is accountable to it. Modernity is a process of continuous rationalization, in which life is increasingly institutionalized, standardized, analyzed, and measured. To be “rational” was to be a calculating creature, matching means to ends for determinate purposes. This was a far cry from the Reason conceived by ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. This Reason, or Logos, was the very structure of reality, and the proper use of reason was the mystical contemplation of this transcendent mystery. This conception of Reason found new currency with the Enlightenment, in which people conceived that society might be organized according to it. Yet even then, the groundwork was being laid for the more instrumental form of rationality that would come to characterize the dominance of the market under industrial capitalism.
The market played a major role in this rationalization process. To sell something on the market, one must first commodify it, reducing it from its multiple use values to a single exchange value. This first requires its quantification, so that one can exchange a definite amount of something for some definite objective value. This in turn requires its objectification, treating it as an object to be manipulated and used for instrumental purposes. Beyond commodification lies capitalization, in which one discounts the present value of a commodity for its expected future value. If one has power to manipulate future events, such as through directing the activities of governments, one can make good on such predictions of future value, thereby shoring up more power for oneself, resulting in the process of capital accumulation.
This process of accumulation is taken as common sense under capitalism. Economists take it for granted that the economy must necessarily grow. To cease to grow would be to die. Surely to turn our back on growth would be to abandon all the blessings of modern technology, from modern medicine to cars to the worldwide web. We have our problems sure, but with more growth we could surely provide abundance for everyone, right? Surely you don’t expect us to get by on less.
We may have no choice. Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have been releasing excess carbon dioxide from fossil fuels into the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect that has been raising global temperatures above the conditions best suited to human habitation. Ecological collapse is all around us, and if we don’t change our way of life, we are headed toward certain doom. Even as climate chaos unfolds before our eyes, there are still holdouts who refuse to acknowledge it. For most, however, the denial is more subtle. They assume that climate change is simply another technical problem. We just need the right technology to make a smooth transition to a zero carbon economy, in which polluting fossil fuels are replaced with clean sources like nuclear and renewables. We can simply take one out and replace it with another, like changing a battery.
Rarely is the question asked whether it might be our social structure itself that is the cause of the crisis, for this would suggest the solution lies in changing that social structure. Capitalism is an endless arms race for total control. In contrast to feudalism in which power structures were relatively fixed, capitalist firms are constantly competing for greater market share. They are profit-seeking not absolutely but relatively, seeking an edge on their competitors. Even a falling rate of profit can be advantageous if it falls at a slower rate than everyone else. This struggle to constantly get ahead drives capitalists to continue to accumulate, seeking new resources to commodify and corner the market with them. This process, called “differential accumulation,” requires that the economy itself continue to expand indefinitely, even as it runs up against the very survival of Earth’s ecosystems.
Murray Bookchin posited that our relationship with nature is a function of our relationships with one another. Systems of social domination lead to a view of nature based on domination. Indigenous peoples organized into clans tend to see nature as also organized into clans, where there is a wolf clan, a deer clan, and so on. In Medieval Europe, nature was conceived as a Great Chain of Being, with God at the top followed by angels, then the different ranks of humans from the pope and kings down to the lords, peasants, and serfs, and the animals, plants, and minerals. Under capitalism, the market became the model of nature. The Darwinian struggle for survival reflected the cutthroat competition of the market, with species competing with one another for supremacy. Darwin himself claimed inspiration from the economist Thomas Malthus, who criticized the English Poor Laws as making poverty worse by driving overpopulation. Darwin did not himself advocate the “Social Darwinism” of figures like Herbert Spencer, but such views were not far from the intellectual atmosphere in which he operated. When people become resources to be exploited and managed for profit, so too does nature.
A mechanistic view of biology going back to Descartes treats the body as a machine with which a conscious soul interacts. Over time, the soul has been taken out of the picture, reducing the human body and mind alike into meat machines. The body as machine went with the universe as machine. The Clockwork Universe replaced the Great Chain of Being. The object of science was to discover what makes it tick so as to better control and manipulate it. The objectification of nature laid the groundwork for its commodification. The commodification of people and land were quintessential aspects of colonialism. Slavery is of course ancient. People could be enslaved as prisoners of war or to pay off a debt. Yet when combined with the drive for accumulation and expansion, the market for slaves exploded. It became necessary to designate a permanent slave class. Thus the concept of race was invented, in which certain peoples were classified as being inherently better suited to slavery due to lower intelligence or being “uncivilized.” Race was a way of expanding the aristocratic concept of “noble blood” to a racial elite known as the white race, and placing others below them in a racial hierarchy. This kind of taxonomy took on scientific pretensions, developing a “race science” that has been debunked for generations yet continues to rear its ugly head again and again, with figures like Charles Murray and E.O. Wilson explaining social inequalities by appealing to biological differences. This kind of biological reductionism is a favorite tactic of capitalists. If the market leads to unequal outcomes, one can simply say that those who benefit from it were somehow superior and therefore intervening in the market to correct those inequalities is interfering with nature.
Markets have existed since the dawn of civilization, but they were always contained within a larger social system. The project of capitalism was to reverse this: to subject society to the market. This took on an especially aggressive form starting in the 1970s with what we now call “neoliberalism.” Scholars have struggled to define neoliberalism, but one generalization we can make of it is that it seeks not only to free markets from government control, but to base governance itself on a business model, in which governments sit alongside international corporations as equal partners in a vast global system. A free market of nations and capital would be united under one global holding company. No more would nations favor their own national capital over others. There was now only global capital.
Defenders of free markets like Friedrich Hayek present markets as the antidote to bureaucracy. We are encouraged to “get government off our back” by supporting free enterprise, free trade, privatization, low taxes, and deregulation. But as David Graeber argues in Utopia of Rules, bureaucracy and markets have always gone together. Markets cannot operate without a strong regulatory framework that enforces contracts, protects property rights, and ensures a level playing field for all participants. As neoliberalism has made markets the primary mechanism for organizing society, we have also seen a vast expansion of bureaucracy. Free trade agreements like NAFTA that are ostensibly supposed to get the government out of the way are actually a long list of rules and regulations that both public and private entities have to abide by in order to trade with one another.
That’s not even getting into the internal bureaucracy of private enterprise. The factory was a massive innovation in bureaucracy. In contrast to the guild system in which people were trained to be skilled craftsmen, the assembly line broke up the work process into incremental parts so that each person would do one repetitive task in which they could be quickly trained and easily replaced. Frederick Taylor introduced the concept of “scientific management” to the workplace, in which management seeks to analyze and synthesize workflows to improve efficiency and labor productivity. These philosophies became a boon to capitalists seeking to shore up their own power, but they also proved useful to those who sought to replace capitalism with state power. They were readily adopted by the Soviet Union, who used them to achieve their productivity quotas and 5-year plans. The Soviet Union is rightly criticized as a bureaucratic nightmare, but the basis for this system came out of capitalism. In a world of unprecedented corporate power where companies like Amazon control global supply chains, command economies are more omnipresent than ever.
The technocratic management of life extends to a global system of hard and soft power. Capitalism had its origins in colonialism, the first wave of globalization, in which European powers competed with one another to claim every corner of the globe. In every country they conquered, traditional subsistence economies were transformed into export economies to serve the imperial core. Poll taxes and crushing debts were imposed that forced people to produce for their colonizers rather than support themselves and their community. This system was reinvented after World War 2 with the Bretton Woods system. The IMF and World Bank would lend to newly independent nations promising to build infrastructure to help develop their economies. The money, however, was lent not to national companies within these nations, but to foreign companies from the Global North, draining the money back out of the country. Essentially, these loans became a way for the Global North to pay itself using colonized labor. When these countries could not pay off these debts, the Bretton Woods institutions would implement “structural adjustment programs,” mandating that they change their laws to become more business-friendly environments for investors. For those that refused to comply, the US could send the CIA to arm coup plotters, installing tyrants that gutted the country to enrich themselves while complying with US demands for cheap resources. As a last resort, the US could send in its own army to do the dirty work themselves. The current system is often called the American Empire, but it differs from the previous colonial systems in that the US does not act on behalf of any national bourgeoisie so much as global capital. The US acts as world police for this global system, and enjoys certain benefits from that position via dollar diplomacy, but the true beneficiary is global capital itself, which belongs to no country.
This system of global capital operates by the endless commodification of human life. The old factory model has been broken open, and now the modern city is the new factory. Real estate is one of the great profit industries, with developers and private equity firms buying up housing and flipping it so as to bring high-income tenants while displacing low-income tenants who must then seek housing elsewhere. Many end up on the streets, joining the ranks of the homeless who are then treated as a nuisance to be hidden away. They are then blamed for smelling bad, using drugs, or simply making the streets look ugly, and developers lobby the city to sweep them out of the way. These sweeps are nothing less than the state-sponsored armed robbery of the most vulnerable members of society.
The underclass, whether they be workers, unemployed, or homeless, are treated not as agents in their own lives, but problems to be managed. This regulation of life was referred to by Michel Foucault as biopower. Under the biopolitical machine of modern capitalism, it is not merely productive labor that is exploited, but the production of the commons in which we all participate. The commons includes the natural world that we all share, such as land, water, ecosystems, and natural resources, but it also includes that which we create together, particularly ideas. Thorstein Veblen distinguished between business and industry. Industry, he said, is inherently collective. It is that productive activity in which we all engage, using the collective work and ideas of those who came before us to create something new. Business, by contrast, is concerned only with pecuniary distribution. Business involves strategically sabotaging industry so as to privately reap its rewards.
This sabotage involves managing an employee’s daily routine, establishing protocols requiring them to do their work a certain way, dividing them into different departments to prevent them from communicating to one another, creating layers of middle management positions, and supervising them to keep them on their toes all the time with busy work. These create a demoralizing sense of meaninglessness characterized by the “bullshit jobs” that David Graeber describes in his book of the same name. What this sabotage does is less about extracting surplus value from production than privatizing the commons. Most work isn’t productive in the first place. You create a dish once but wash it thousands of times. Most work is care work, maintaining relationships, helping one another, sharing one another’s burdens. The sabotage of capital involves disrupting these common forms of labor we provide for one another so that they can be privatized and commodified. Instead of caring for one another as we would naturally do, people are paid to perform that labor under the watchful eye of the capitalist. In this way we are made dependent on the capitalist and made to believe we couldn’t do anything without them.
Technocratic management is the way capital usurps the commons. This was true under the factory model, in which the collective labor of the workers was alienated from them after they were kicked off the land and left with nothing to sell but their labor. It is even more true now. Housing is bought up en masse to keep rents high, homeless people are managed to keep them out of sight from businesses and high-earning residents, debts are collateralized and traded on the stock market, and personal information is collected and sold on the internet. Capitalists place bets about how things will turn out, and then manipulate the course of events to make their bets pay off. Insurance calculates the aggregate likelihood of different outcomes and bases its premiums on the maximum payout. Banks make about $15 billion a year from overdraft fees. We live in a fraud-based economy, and that’s not even counting the overt fraud from spam emails and scam calls that have ballooned ever since net neutrality was overturned. The vast majority of profit today is made by fundamentally dishonest means. The economy today is 5 private equity firms in a trench coat buying up all the housing, bundling our debts, betting on our Starbucks order, collecting our personal information, and selling it right back to us as advertising. It’s all grift upon grift upon grift.
This massive fraud can’t simply enforce itself. Hence the need for the security state. From the CIA sponsoring fascist coups to the ever-expanding police budgets here at home, it’s increasingly clear that the cost of maintaining this empire is sheer physical force. For a brief, shining moment in 2020, there was serious talk about defunding the police so that real social solutions could be explored. Such concerns were quickly crushed, however, because the current capital order is fully dependent on the armed wing of the state to crush dissent. The military was the first megamachine. It was the first entity whose regimentation allowed for the expansion of power. Now it manifests in police forces whose duties involve the daily maintenance of a racial caste system and the suppression of dissent. As society becomes increasingly unequal, the public expenditure on security expands. This system of mass surveillance, fraud, and exploitation can ultimately only be upheld from the barrel of a gun.
Now, where does the tech industry fit into all of this? Where did Bill Gates build his fortune? The early days of computing were open source. Everyone was using everyone else’s software and adding to it. Bill Gates made the innovation of privatizing his software. Of course, not a dime went to the other software developers whose work enabled his own. He simply had the business instincts to stab them in the back in order to enrich himself. As for Elon Musk? What he didn’t get as startup capital from his dad’s emerald mines, he got from government contracts. His fortune from Tesla has not come from car sales, but rather from trading in carbon credits, an utterly useless speculative asset for which we can all thank Al Gore. Mark Zuckerberg made his fortune selling personal information to advertisers. Jeff Bezos has found a way to get a cut of other people’s sales while squeezing his own workers of the most basic amenities. Every one of these guys has found a way to enclose the commons for their own benefit.
What, then, are these tech guys up to? It turns out that they are a treasure trove of ideas long since thought to be left behind in the 19th century. Malthusianism, race science, and eugenics are becoming increasingly mainstream among the self-appointed “smartest guys in the room.” Ayn Rand created a cult of the entrepreneur as the ultimate übermensch whose vision extends far beyond that of the ordinary plebeian. This is the poison consumed by every self-important tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Every one of these guys conceives of himself as God’s gift to the world, and there are adoring crowds who eat up every bit of it. Whether it’s housing, transportation, climate change, or global poverty, our tech saviors have it covered. All we need to do is give up our own autonomy and hand the keys over to them.
Few exemplify this phenomenon more clearly than Elon Musk. For years he got glowing coverage not only from free market libertarians but even from many on the left. This real-life Tony Stark was supposed to solve the energy crisis, reinvent transportation as we know it, and send us to Mars. He still assures us that these are all going to happen, but in the meantime he just had to spend $44 billion buying one of the largest social media sites to settle petty scores and boost “free speech” for the worst people on the planet while quietly banning reporters who document the disturbing rise of fascism in which he himself has played no small part. Elon Musk the boy genius and Elon Musk the incompetent manchild are two irreconcilable narratives, and hordes of followers still cling to the former no matter how clearly he reveals himself to be the latter. How could the same man who makes juvenile jokes about “69” and “420” when he’s not baselessly accusing rescue workers of being pedophiles also be the man behind the world’s top electric car and battery company? Tesla was never his idea to begin with. The company had already existed for a year before he gained controlling shares. To be sure, he was pretty hands-on as far as CEOs go, but it was his engineers that made it all work. Whether it’s passively approving proposals or giving broad instructions and others figure out how to make it work, every “genius CEO” from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos to Bill Gates to Steve Jobs is always parasitic on the genius of others. Even if they were competent engineers in their own right, the development of this technology is a collaborative effort.
Another one of Musk’s early ventures was his share in PayPal with his business partner Peter Thiel. Thiel considers himself a “libertarian,” but there really is no better descriptor for his politics than “fascist.” In his vision, companies are better run than governments because they have a single decision-maker - a dictator, essentially. He’s put this philosophy into practice by funding far-right candidates like Donald Trump and J.D. Vance and supporting the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian “Dark Enlightenment” espoused by figures such as Nick Land and Curtis Yarvin aka Mencius Moldbug.
While Thiel is considered somewhat of an outlier in otherwise Democrat-leaning Silicon Valley, others there share with him a sense of themselves as a natural aristocracy, visionary leaders high above the fray whose genius is underappreciated and who could solve all our problems if we just let them run things. Perhaps that’s why so many of them have been not-so-subtly trying to bring back eugenics. Elon Musk has openly fretted about low birth rates in the West as “the biggest danger civilization faces by far.” Musk has poured money into Nick Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), which promotes a philosophy of “longtermism.” The name sounds innocuous enough. After all, isn’t long-term thinking what we need right now in a world facing imminent climate collapse as a consequence of short-term profit-seeking? But the “long term” thinking they have in mind is much more sinister. In the longtermist view, what is important for the long term is not the survival or even well-being of future generations of people, but that humanity fulfill its long-term potential through human enhancement and cultivation of genius. In pursuing this, they advocate directing resources not toward those most in need, but those who have the most to contribute. In other words, exactly the kind of geniuses like these Silicon Valley types fancy themselves as.
A related trend involving the distribution of resources is the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, made famous by disgraced financier Sam Bankman-Fried. This movement seeks to study how best to allocate philanthropic money to where it will be most effective. Again, like longtermism, this sounds reasonable on paper. What it ends up doing, however, is acting as a substitute for democracy. Whereas democracy would put control of resources in the hands of the people, EA entrusts the world’s richest people with determining who needs those resources the most based on allegedly “scientific” criteria. This is criteria tends to be that of longtermism. In other words, the most "effective" altruism for them is that which invests in a future more suitable for people like them. One finds something similar in such philanthropic ventures as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in which billionaires who no one elected get to decide public health policy for all of Africa. They can of course point to all the good they are doing in public vaccinations, agricultural development, and sanitation. Who could be opposed to those? Yet this philanthropy becomes yet another means of control, making unelected oligarchs more powerful than any government in these countries.
Bill and Melinda Gates are no longer married. Their divorce rather infamously involved another billionaire financier named Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein, of course, was convicted in one of the most notorious sex trafficking rings in history, implicating a veritable who’s who of billionaires, celebrities, and academics. Epstein saw himself as much more than a pimp to the rich and powerful. He saw himself as a visionary genius just like all these tech billionaires: God’s gift to the world, towering over us plebs. So convinced was he of his own superior genes that he hoped to seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating 20 girls at a time. He also fancied himself a patron of science, making large donations to Harvard, rubbing shoulders with top scientists, and flying out to science conferences.
At one such conference he was famously photographed with physicist Lawrence Krauss and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, the latter of whom has been known to block anyone on Twitter who shares that photo or at least one other known photo of the two together. Pinker claims his relationship to Epstein was purely innocent, that the two didn’t get along that well, and that nothing happened. He does, however, seem to share with Epstein a similarly technocratic, reductionist, genetic determinist view of the world. Pinker has touted his own genetic superiority and belittled those who doubt the genetic basis of race, echoing 19th century views of race science. He has also testified on behalf of Epstein in a legal case, bringing his rather dubious views on rape and feminism to bear on the latter’s trial for solicitation.
The kind of reductive STEM views that Pinker promotes fit nicely within the worldview of the tech and finance oligarchy. It presents a rigidly hierarchical view of human nature in which some genetically gifted individuals are best fit to lead the rest. Since hierarchy is natural, government meddling to interfere with that inequality is messing with nature. Oligarchy is the natural order, so long as it is the right oligarchs in power. To the extent that electoral democracy is important, it is to ensure that this natural aristocracy rises to the top, but the market offers an even more secure means of doing so.
These technocrats have gotten into the housing business. The pro-developer “YIMBY” (Yes In My Backyard) movement has found a welcome audience among tech and finance people looking for cheaper rent in cities like San Francisco and New York. As with EA and longtermism, their reasoning is deceptively simple: increase housing supply by upzoning and deregulating until rents begin to decline. Simple supply and demand. In so doing, however, they heavily favor market-rate housing over affordable, subsidized, or public housing. While not a completely homogeneous group, they tend to at least de-emphasize the importance of measures like rent control and tenant protections that address the housing crisis directly, and instead look to the magic of the market to solve it by getting big government out of the way. If we simply allow developers to build by eliminating cumbersome regulations, we’ll have housing abundance, and the benefits will trickle down to everyone.
True to their name, the greatest nemesis for the YIMBY is the “NIMBY.” Typically we think of NIMBYs as privileged middle-to-upper-class white people who are worried about newcomers from different socioeconomic backgrounds defiling the “character” of their neighborhood. However, for YIMBYs, this is practically the reverse. It is working class communities of color opposed to developers gentrifying their neighborhoods that are the true NIMBYs. YIMBY views on gentrification range from denying that it exists to insisting it’s actually a good thing or at best seeing it as an unfortunate cost of progress that can be alleviated by working toward even more housing abundance. Because the people are so clearly misled as to their own interests, possibly by duplicitous tenant organizers, YIMBYs as a rule tend to be pretty hostile to democracy. After all, if you let the people decide, you’ll just get people yelling at city council hearings saying “Not In My Backyard!” And as YIMBYs are fond of saying “housing delayed is housing denied.” Even advocating that a new housing project include more affordable units is treated as sabotaging the housing abundance that we truly need.
Whether it’s housing, philanthropy, or the global economy, the technocratic elite want you to know that they have a plan, as long as you put them in charge. They’re the smartest guys in the room, and if you just let them run things, the rest of us don’t have to worry our pretty little heads about it. They know they’re superior to the rest of us, but you see, that’s a good thing, because they have the foresight for humanity’s long term, where we will accomplish limitless possibilities by promoting geniuses like them. They know the “one weird trick” to make it all work. We just have to get out of the way and let them take the wheel.
The antidote to technocracy is democracy, and the key to democracy is the commons. The commons is more or less identical to democracy, which is why the enemies of democracy are so busy trying to privatize it. The commons is that which belongs to all of us, and whatever belongs to all must likewise be managed by all. The eugenicist eco-fascist Garrett Hardin bemoaned the “tragedy of the commons,” in which common resources would collapse from everyone using it to their own benefit. This argument is essentially identical with every technocratic argument against democracy. Fortunately, Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom proved that the tragedy of the commons was not inevitable, and that in fact many real-world examples of people democratically managing the commons.
Land, ecosystems, climate, cities, ideas, and technology are all commons, but the smartest guys in the room are sure they know how to manage them better. It’s time we realize we’re all a lot smarter than they give us credit for - perhaps not individually, but collectively. Each of us carries our own tacit knowledge of our surroundings, our lived experience, our talents and interests. The democratic management of the commons would involve us pooling this intelligence together to find solutions beyond what any one of us can come up with individually. Together we can build a future made for all of us.