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The rise of digital feudalism in a multipolar, unstable world

The current global health emergency provoked by COVID-19 is accelerating deep changes that will have far reaching implications not only for the way international relations are conducted but in every aspect of social life and economic activity.

The influence of powerful non-state actors in the international stage was already becoming more relevant than the classic power struggles among states at the height of globalization. States have been progressively losing their exclusive role in the construction of the multilateral international system.

Now, their diminished sovereignty has to do with the increased power and influence of transnational corporations — of which Big Tech is the ultimate example — the privatization of military force, and the international role of private armies and militias, transnational terrorist organizations, and drug cartels and other criminal groups.

The institutional and economic architecture put in place at the end of World War II — which has made possible one of the longest periods of stability and prosperity in recent history — is currently in turmoil and not so much because of the so-called revisionist states.

The demolition team of this international system is headed by its main founder and recognized arbiter: The United States. It would be unfair to put all the blame on President Trump for a systemic crisis that is the result of the globalization process itself and the failures of the multilateral system, accelerated by the coronavirus crisis.

This said, the reckless brinkmanship in Trump’s approach to international relations is accelerating and aggravating the failures of the system. His disruption of international institutions such as the World Trade Organization or the United Nations, his disregard of the European Union and his ambiguity towards NATO will hinder the capacity of those institutions, limited as they may be, to respond to the mounting challenges ahead.

The illusions of populists and other enemies of liberal multilateralism about their capacity to replace an international order they consider weak and ineffective with a return to the safety of state sovereignty and unilateral policies, are as unrealistic as those that still believe the international institutional architecture is solid enough to endure the current geopolitical shocks without decisive action.

The privatization of surveillance technology and military services will have far reaching consequences, since it affects what defines state authority: the legitimate use of force to ensure social order and security. Thus, military alternatives, instead of diplomatic initiatives, become easier and more acceptable politically for the government, also any wealthy individual or corporation could eventually hire a private army for its own reasons.

This is a scenario closer to the condottieri and mercenary bands of medieval Europe than a return to the golden age of state sovereignty. The Hobbesian vision of the future international order can contribute to dismantling the multilateral liberal system, which has received criticism from different quarters in its current form, but it does not have an alternative vision to replace it beyond the classic “might makes right.” The shift in the tectonic plates of international politics is pointing towards a highly unstable multipolar system in which post-Weberian states with diminished sovereignty will coexist with an eroded multilateral architecture and powerful non-state actors.

The trust of citizens in their leaders and liberal democracy has been diminishing rapidly in the past decade, in parallel with the growth of social media. The problem is deeper than the effect of fake news or defective governance or corruption.

The narrative of the international liberal order of ever-increasing prosperity fueled by endless economic growth is not credible anymore. The situation in the Middle East offers a particularly stark example of how this crisis can accelerate a process of authority fragmentation, institutional collapse, rampant corruption and failed governance.

Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, or Yemen already can be considered test cases of this neo-medieval model, in which non-state actors are already the main decision makers. According to the United Nations Development Programme, more than 60 percent of the citizens in the Middle East and North Africa region will suffer acute economic vulnerability during this decade. Growing inequalities, the effects of climate change, future scarcity of resources, the impact of unprecedented population displacements, and the return of health hazards we thought were eradicated are a breeding ground for cataclysmic transformation.

The shock of the financial crisis of 2008 did not lead to a radical transformation of the deep-rooted causes of the financial system’s failures. Recession may revisit us again as a result of COVID-19 but it would be short-sighted to believe that this will be the result of the economic effects of the emergency measures taken to address the pandemic.

The impending economic calamity is a consequence of a much deeper problem, that is related to the nature of our economic model and the political institutions that support it. Deregulation of the financial markets opened the way to great wealth but also increased dangerous social inequalities and the vulnerability of the system. The amounts of public debt that most of the world states are incurring, substantially increased by the response to the 2008 financial crisis and the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, will force future generations to be born into financial bondage, in a similar way as the feudal servitude would be imposed on those born centuries ago.

Artificial Intelligence is developing rapidly and the connection between massive data harvesting and biometric monitoring with the implications of 5G technology will multiply the capacity of governments to control their citizens. If citizens had their rights previously restricted as a voluntary choice between freedom and security, now we will be presented with a new choice between health and privacy. If the rise of surveillance states is a matter of serious concern, it is even more worrying that the new technological instruments and personal data is actually in the hands of powerful private corporations. If not addressed now, the collusion between the surveillance state and digital feudalism will blur the difference between totalitarian and democratic states in ways that are still difficult to imagine. Many of the emergency measures taken now will become a fixture of life as the whole historical process will be fast-forwarded. The choice between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment or between nationalistic retrenchment and expansion of globalization will shape the coming historical cycle.

Personal data harvesting is fueling the growth of the technological behemoths, attracting a growing share of all global investment indetriment of the productive economy, job creation, and social infrastructure. Ten percent of the large corporations accumulate 80 percent of international capitalization, and many of them are the Big Tech juggernauts.

The domination that the biggest companies have over data harvesting not only fuels a thriving business model, but it also gives them uncontrollable political influence at a global level. The impact that the manipulation of social media had in the Brexit vote or in the last U.S. elections has been signaled as the tip of the iceberg of the new tools for influencing public opinion and changing the way democracy works.

Journalist and author Rana Foroohar has written about how our Big Tech overlords now have the capacity of modifying perceptions and behavior of people both for profit and control. The massive amount of personal data is the most valuable natural resource of the new economy. People are not the customers anymore, they are the product, and in this metaphysical shift we will not be very different from the bonded servants of the feudal world.

The scope of the choices that political leaders, corporate executives, or social activists are facing is certainly daunting. The calls to regulate Big Tech in the U.S. are being countered by the argument that it would give China the advantage in a vital strategic sector. The demands to guarantee airtight security is pushing democracies to adopt the same surveillance systems that we criticize in totalitarian states. The private military service industry is already a multibillion-dollar business listed in the New York Stock Exchange and seems to be there to stay.

The need to reactivate the economy will require new transfers of resources from taxpayers to the corporate players. Can we address so many difficult tasks simultaneously at a time of crisis and questioned state authority? Before the new 5G networks are operational, we may have one last chance to incorporate the beneficial aspects of this technological revolution while preserving citizens’ rights and a corporate leveled playing field.

The main issue is not if a Chinese company should have control of those infrastructures, but if any company or government should have that power over every aspect of our lives. The impact of such decisions will have far reaching geopolitical impact, contributing to preserve the multilateral cooperation we need to address global challenges and manage the international crisis in the making. In the face of such odds, success is uncertain but the cost of not trying will undoubtedly be much higher.

The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not represent official policies of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article is based on a recent publication in German at Zenith Magazine.