The Power Of The People

The Power Of The People

In arenas as far-reaching as financial markets, government, communications, and entertainment, the supremacy of once all-powerful elites is now being challenged by a collective hoard of nobodies.

By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, January 28, 2021

There is a scene in the movie Gandhi, where the Mahatma tells the assembled generals and representatives of the British empire that “100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350,000,000 Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate.”

It was the beginning of the end for the British occupation of India, and the message was clear. The British empire was a powerful force when it came to armed conflict, but there was only so much that they could do if the masses decide to peacefully ignore their legitimacy. All forms of government rely on an agreement between all parties that those in charge have some form of legitimate authority. When that ceases, the grand bargain breaks down.

This week, a new phenomenon began to take on a life of its own as retail investors, so-called “dumb money,” turned the tables on several large Wall Street hedge funds, as they bought up shares of stocks from several companies including GameStop, AMC Theaters, and Blackberry. These were all companies who were essentially in trouble, and the hedge funds were shorting their positions, betting that the stock price would fall. Instead, the stock prices have risen to astronomical heights causing billions in losses to large, established power players. As it stands the stock prices are far inflated above anything that is reasonable for a mall-based video game retailer, a movie theater chain, and a tech company from a bygone era. 

This wasn’t business as usual by rival investors, but speculators and pranksters, nobodies tweaking the big guys for fun and profit. It’s hard to know how it will play out, but there is little doubt that regulators and large institutional investors will move in an attempt to stop the madness, at least for a while.

But the gates have been breached and now that they know it can be done, there is nothing to stop then from trying it again. The dragon, it seems, has a soft spot after all.

Throughout history, power has largely been concentrated to an elite few, who were designated as such, almost solely by their wealth. From the ownership of land to the ability to raise and fund armies, power came from wealth and privilege, usually hereditary as opposed to earned. 

But as power has moved from the ownership of land to the control of information, and as technology has begun to level the playing field, we now find ourselves in a potentially new paradigm where there is a greater sense of democracy across many industries. Not equality exactly, mind you, but there are clearly opportunities for those without wealth and privilege to compete in new arenas, simply because the barriers for entry have been removed.

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

The upper class was always cognizant of the power of the people to overpower them if they were ever to lose control over them. American democracy itself is an exercise in ruling the masses with a light enough hand that they not bite it. Provide representation, allowing everyone to feel heard and respected, but leave the decision making to the intellectuals and wealthy elites. God forbid we let the mob make decisions, for it would be anarchy.

So it’s surprising that we find ourselves in an era where the balance of power has begun to shift to consumers and voters, and the gatekeepers are being replaced by artificial intelligence and crowd-sourcing. There is no utopia to be found where no one is in charge, but we are certainly in a state of flux and it’s not entirely clear if anyone currently is. One thing is certain and that is that the supremacy of once all-powerful elites is in jeopardy, and those challenging them are not just a new faction of elites, but the mob itself.

Back in June of 2020, it’s unlikely that Donald Trump and his campaign were even aware of what TikTok was, let alone the massive subculture of K-Pop, when they began organizing an indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But they were about to get a crash course in how effective a motivated online community could be in disrupting their plans and humiliating them in the process. 

What they were not prepared for, was a world-wide, concerted effort to lull them into believing they were witnessing record-breaking enthusiasm and desire for tickets to their big show. Completely overcome with hubris, the Trump campaign boasted of the number of tickets pre-ordered online and prepared for an overflow crowd with additional speakers and an outdoor second stage.

When just a little over 6,000 people showed up to a venue that held 19,000, they began to realize they’d been had. What they believed was record-breaking enthusiasm for the event, was simply a passionate group of music fans who had banded together using the social media platform TikTok to organize and execute the deception. 

The Trump campaign had exacerbated their own demise no doubt, by bragging about their own ticket sales, likely causing many to stay away assuming they would not be able to get in. In the end, they began breaking down the outdoor stage before the event even began and at one point it was unclear if the President would even go out.

The debacle directly contributed to, if not outright caused, campaign chairman Brad Parscale to be demoted and ultimately fired, such was the humiliation. The teens worldwide who had pulled off this stunt had managed to keep it to themselves, speaking to one another on a platform unknown to most of the rest of the world, and tweaking the leader of the free world in sublime fashion. They hadn’t organized a shutdown or a massive protest, instead, they out-hyped the master of hype, and delivered the one thing that would hurt him the most, an empty arena.

We are seeing one aspect of the end-game of the democratization of society that the internet has brought us, and not all of it is good. Throughout history, there has often been a good reason for gatekeepers. Someone in a position of power that could set some sort of standard. Newspaper publishers, television networks, elite universities, power brokers, and corporate titans. They made decisions that caused ripples throughout society, for better or worse, but they also maintained a certain degree of predictability and stability. 

Anarchy is not an effective form of self-rule. Everyone making their own decisions for themselves, with no thought towards the larger community, is not conducive to a healthy society. It’s true that inevitably those gatekeepers get drunk with power and abuse their position, and it’s not terribly healthy for power to be concentrated too tightly.

It’s unclear where the natural balance of power lies, or if there even is one. It doesn’t seem as if there has ever been a time in human history where the power rested with the masses, only whether the masses were sufficiently mollified. Even in our greatest periods of prosperity, some group was taking it in the teeth.

We are always looking for that paradigm shift, where it is not merely a pendulum swing, but a different plane of reality, and it rarely materializes. In the end, it’s just a new swing of the same pendulum and eventually, we end up back on one side or the other of the balance of power. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. Someone wins the lottery and a poor kid gets a million-dollar contract with a sports franchise or a movie studio. This is enough to keep most people believing that one day they will get a chance to grab the brass ring. 

The American Dream is nothing more than a scratch-off lottery ticket. A tacky, garish facsimile of wealth, in the form of a child’s game. Because that is what they have offered us.

The chink in the armor, accentuated by technology, just maybe the ability for relatively small groups of commoners to band together and challenge the supremacy of the elites. We have been witnessing glimpses of this with the rise of self-publishing, cultural influencers, and citizen journalists. We have seen the downside of this trend with subpar literature, questionable talent, and unqualified opinion masquerading as expertise. But we have also experienced a wealth of new voices that have sprung out on their own, outside the normal channels, beholden to no one.

Whatever equilibrium we expect to find, whether or not it’s reasonable, is often artificially maintained by those in power. What can we learn from this? Can ordinary people challenge the status quo and the power dynamic if they organize and take advantage of the power of their numbers? This has been tried before of course. It was rarely the revolution that was hoped for. From the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s to the Occupy movement of a decade ago. It’s not that nothing happened, they were often defining moments and did portend real change. It’s just that it was rarely the epic shift the participants hoped it would be.

One thing is for certain though, don’t ever underestimate the rich and powerful, as they are not about to lose their leverage without a fight, and they have an almost inexhaustible arsenal at their disposal. 

But don’t overestimate them either. Many great entities that were once considered all-powerful and invincible, have since fallen. Sometimes all you need to do is to change the playing field and the ground shifts from underneath them. Throughout history, this has happened. Often times it was technology, but almost always it was a change in strategy and tactics made possible by technology. 

Europeans easily overtook the natives of faraway lands because of steel and gunpowder, not because they were destined by God. Guns beat arrows. Swords overcame spears. But it didn’t always go as planned as guerrilla warfare defeated military might. Nonviolent noncooperation beat firepower.

The numbers were always with the people, but the masses rarely have the upper hand. Is it possible that the balance of power is getting ready to shift again? Revolutions, whether bloody or not, are always disruptive to the status quo and anyone with wealth and power will fight to keep it. The only way the power shifts is if the ground shifts first. Are these tremors we are feeling, minor earthquakes that will soon settle, or do they predict a larger, more tectonic shift?

We are living in an interesting time.

Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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