A struggle occurring around the world today is between democratic aspirations and the resurgent power of plutocrats — from Putin in Russia to Xi in China to Trump in the US to MBS in Saudi Arabia. Plutocrats are working to override democratic institutions, limit citizens’ rights, and determine commercial outcomes.
A plutocracy emerges when rules are set by wealthy individuals or their proxies.
Plan S has plutocracy at its heart, with its main organizers consciously placing monied interests atop publishers. The fact that many of these funders are uneasy with this speaks to a laudable and correct sense of humility and service.
We’re not the only publishing economy dancing with plutocrats. Consolidation means billionaires run major news outlets and use their money in political lobbying to shape society. The two occur in conjunction in some cases (the Murdochs).
The through-line here is plutocracy.
Plutocracy is affecting scientific research, with the MIT Media Lab the current poster child of how this can go so, so wrong. In a formal write-up in The Atlantic published today and based on the Twitter thread I featured earlier this week, Sarah Taber writes:
Research labs cultivate plutocrats and corporate givers who want to be associated with flashy projects. Science stops being a tool to achieve things people need—clean water, shelter, food, transit, communication—and becomes a fashion accessory. If the labs are sleek, the demos look cool, and they both reflect the image the donor wants, then mission accomplished. Nothing needs to actually work.
This resonates with what Scott Galloway said last week on the “Pivot” podcast along the same lines:
. . . in the world of academia . . . we no longer see ourselves as public servants — we see ourselves as luxury brands, and we want to raise billions and billions of dollars.
The lure of money and power is hard to resist, and failures of other institutions — universities and non-profits with massive, unspent endowments, governments stripped for parts — remove customary sources of funding. Libraries, universities, newspapers, and scientists are all experiencing the same issues, and turning to the funder of last resort — the plutocrat.
Just look at how many buildings and structures at universities bear plutocrats’ names.
Well-functioning democratic societies typically have a free-market economy regulated by laws arrived at via a representative government. You really don’t see one without the other. By attempting to override a law-abiding free market with monied governance, approaches like those represented by Plan S are operationalizing plutocratic impulses.
As I wrote in May, the funding of bioRxiv and Meta by CZI falls into this category, what author Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” called in an interview the “refuedalization” of society at the hands of the rich via their philanthropies:
. . . what is so remarkable about that is how obvious it is. This is the whole reason that we transitioned over hundreds of years out of feudalism to democracy. . . . this thing is not new that [the rich are] trying to do. It’s old. This is a refeudalization.
If you watch “Downton Abbey,” you understand the idea. . . . the rich people are nice, but they’re in charge of how the help works. They’re in charge of shaping the society through their kindness, through their generosity. And this is the [Mark] Zuckerberg model.
He’s trying to get rid of all the world’s diseases, as if public education wasn’t a hard enough problem. I just think, “How remarkable.” We have doctors. He may not be aware of them, but we have some. His wife is one. We have an entire public health infrastructure. We have the Centers for Disease Control. We have the NIH. But no, Mark is going to get rid of all the diseases . . .
Are we — by allowing funders more power, by stripping out the democratizing influence of diverse revenue streams, by driving consolidation — drifting into a plutocratic system, just as science, journalism, and academia have been for decades?
It’s something to think about.
- “Sugar Daddies, Science, and Plan S.”
- “A Monster, His Money, and Morality.”
- “Taxpayer-funded Silence and Intimidation.”