The story of power: across agriculture, economics, to technology

In this long read, we explore the throughlines of power across Big Tech, Big Agriculture, Big Finance, and more. Instead of being defeated, however, knowing this story gives us the tools to free ourselves and each other in this digital age.

The new gods, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, seem to be wielding power in a way that is formidable and unpredictable. But if we look at the story of power from building the economic system after World War Two, to the rise of corporate agriculture, and even to the current war on cash, we'll find that power is being wielded in eerily similar ways...

When we think about power, there can be a sense of inevitability to it—that certain power dynamics, and relations of power, are “natural”. That there will “always” be the powerful and the powerless, which therefore conveniently explains “the way things are”: that is, a world of hierarchy, inequality and control. Sometimes, we think that way about big systems, that are unfathomably complex. It can, after all, be easier to think about them that way. But how power operates, in the systems and structures around us, has never been “natural”. Power has always been wielded, and if we explore power across different contexts, we find that they have been wielded in similar ways: the actors may change, but the story remains.

We begin with the creation of global inequality, as we know it today. As economic anthropologist Jason Hickel narrates in The Divide, when the dust was settling after the Second World War, the world was reckoning with the immediate aftermath of European imperialism: a process of widespread plunder, violence, and genocide, across geographies and peoples. The United States was not innocent either: it had—aside from its own problematic history on its own unceded lands—intervened in Latin American countries since the 19th centuries, and was invading and occupying states like Honduras and Cuba even as late as the 1920s and 1930s.

There was a clear divide between the richer countries in the global North, and the poorer countries in the global South. Out of the American desire to make sense of the inequality came the myth of “development”. Hickel describes, this myth “provided a keystone around which people could organise their ideas about the world, about human progress and about our future.” That is: richer countries in Europe and North America were “developed”, “doing better because they were better”, while countries of the global South were “developing”, or “underdeveloped”, because they lacked: in values, institutions, technology, knowledge, and otherwise.

From this myth came a global economic system that sought to maintain this status quo: because the myth took shape and people bought it, the global North no longer had to take accountability for the history, and they were free to make the rules as they liked in the new economic system. In other words: global North countries were (“deservedly”) richer, so, as the rules of international trade and finance were first created, through the World Bank and the IMF, they had disproportionate influence. And what they did then was essentially recreate the story of colonialism, except this time through financial systems.

One example of what they did to reinforce and recreate global inequality was to impose structural adjustment programmes across the global South in the 1980s, through the World Bank and the IMF, forcing global South governments to export raw materials or cheap labour, ensuring a relation of extractivism such that global South countries could never get their own economic development off the ground. This relation further enabled multinational corporations (MNCs) to thrive at the expense of the global South—many of these MNCs, of course, headquartered in, and benefiting, the global North.

The rules haven’t changed: today, in the World Bank and the IMF, voting power is inequitably held in the hands of global North countries. They continue to “enjoy disproportionate power when it comes to determining the rules of the global economy. Inequality begets inequality,” writes Hickel. In The Divide, he writes of “free” trade: “From the onset of colonialism through to globalisation, the main objective of the North has been to force down the cost of labour and goods bought from the South.” Their bargaining power and the resulting trade agreements, coupled with the power of corporations, help them get their way. One result of this is “unequal exchange”: the huge gap between the real value of labour and resources from the global South, and the price paid for them. The numbers speak for themselves: research shows that rich countries extract, from the global South, 10 billion tonnes of raw materials, 800 million hectares of land, 23 exajoules of energy, and 200 million person-years of labour… per year.

The story of power here is that global poverty and inequality between the global North and the global South has been engineered by people who got their hands on the pens that wrote the rules of the global economic system, who, in Hickel’s words, created an “underlying architecture of wealth extraction and accumulation”, which ruthlessly include global South economies—but at what cost is this inclusion? And did they have a choice?

If we zoom further into the financial system, we’ll see that there is a parallel situation going on in the world of banking too: economic anthropologist Brett Scott invites us to reconsider what we’ve been told about being captured in these financial structures. “Visa and Mastercard, and all the big players, like Bill and Melinda Gates and so on, they all carry this mentality that it’s obviously desirable to bring you in,” he says. That is, about the “unbanked” in the world who are being “serviced” by “humanitarians” and “philanthropists” and… corporations.

He asks: “The deep politics of this is [whether] it is really in your interest to get absorbed by the system and on what terms are you going to get absorbed. Will you be on the lowest subordinated rungs of the market economy when you're getting "included" in it?” If this is beginning to sound vaguely conspiratorial, think about the massive, growing instrument of debt. International organisation Progressive International writes: “[The global financial system] is a system organized to secure the power of creditors over debtors; to ensures that access to credit is easy and riskless for the most predatory financial firms, while making borrowing hazardous and often ruinous for students, families, or small-scale farmers; to guarantee that sovereign bond holders get repaid by forcing governments to eliminate welfare programs or cut health budgets.”

While the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, it’s vital to note that power isn’t just being exerted on those who are poor (I prefer the term, “economically exploited”). The financial system’s rules of violent inclusion spell trouble for the average person too. One significant question to ask is: why is the war on cash so hard-fought? Brett Scott points out: “think [about] the way [cash] moves through the society from hand to hand and local settings and physical settings: that’s totally antithetical to the business model of large-scale digital corporates like Amazon, which require you to destroy time and space. Amazon cannot be its size unless you reject localism and slowness.”

The war on cash isn’t to make our lives more convenient—that’s a useful side effect and narrative tool, perhaps—it’s to intensify globalised capitalism, and grow the (power of) corporations that are thriving from it. Moving away from cash means we get included—banked—into a future where the local, the small, the real, the physical, gets more and more diminished.

“If you're looking at the broad trajectory of corporate capitalism, it's towards institutional intermediation in everything. If you don't abide by that, you will start to get presented as if you're out of sync with everything.”

Brett Scott

What about agriculture? We’ve lost an estimated 90% of crop varieties in the world: but this loss of diversity was never natural—it was planned. Non-profit organisation A Growing Culture (AGC) outlines what happened in the world of agriculture: corporate interests have been pushing for highly industrialised agriculture, much like the Green Revolution, meaning the Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and donor governments, have together been using their economic power to “transition” farmers into industrial farming. As AGC writes, “from agroecology to agribusiness”.

Farmers are forced into using corporate products, “which ultimately turn farmers into new consumers for agribusiness corporations. Instead of extracting raw materials, as under colonialism, agribusiness firms now simply make money by cultivating small-scale farmers’ dependence on their products. These corporate “solutions” end up driving more poverty.” Worse, these corporate interests co-opt spaces where global food systems are discussed—the UN Food Systems Summit’s concept paper is “dominated by topics like AI-controlled farming systems, gene editing, and other high-tech solutions geared towards large-scale agriculture, as well as finance and market mechanisms to address food insecurity, with methods like agroecology notably absent or minimally discussed.”

Agroecology, with methods that are not only effective, but also low-input and low-cost, are just not profitable for corporate interest, but more than that they would not be able to have as much control, so a great deal of money goes into fighting agroecology. As AGC notes, there is “a deeper and more insidious trend in food systems governance: the erosion of democratic decision-making and the rise of powerful, unaccountable, private-sector actors who continue to consolidate power over the food system.”

Sounds familiar?

“The desire to assimilate the majority world into cyborgs can be seen as a corollary to the idea of financial inclusion which tries to convert free people into consumptive capitalists, ultimately trapping us all within the debt-based neoliberal economy.”

Alnoor Ladha

We’re now entering a digital age. The new gods, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA), as Carl Miller explores in The Death of the Gods, fed from each other through data, networks, software, computers, creating structures that streamlined life and living for people everywhere. Together they began to do just about everything, and soon became an intermediary in all of the “services” offered. Miller writes: “It was a powerful, self-reinforcing cycle that turned an advantage into dominance.”

Miller points us towards systems architecture, “how the technology is put together, where the pipes of data point, who controls it, and what they can do with it”, and he says that through this, “dramatic concentrations” of control and power, have been accumulated “in the hands of a tiny number of companies, indeed a tiny number of people.” This is just like* all the systems of power that came before it: a handful of people get their hands on the ability to control massive structures, and the inclusion of more and more people, as more and more data points, arguably at our—users’—expense, facilitates their growth.

The tactics and the story endures through different iterations: all these interconnected systems of power have a firm grip over structures that govern us—the “us” here is generalised, though it could really be anyone, considering the scale of these structures under modern capitalism. What do we do then, knowing this? Well, knowing this story presents possibilities for action: refusal to assimilate is one, collective actions to rewrite the rules is another. There is also the possibility of creating entirely new structures that serve us instead—except, of course, (truly) collectively and democratically. As Alnoor Ladha says, “we should use the masters tools, and any means necessary, to free ourselves from capitalism and create the new infrastructures and the new stories.” We may not have the power to control these structures, but we do have the power to free ourselves from them.

*As much as the digital age presents us with possibilities to parallel the new systems of power with old ones, the story above isn’t a complete one. The digital age is already presenting emerging technologies that are difficult to predict, despite the architecture being technically created by humans. As Carl Miller writes, “Algorithms have changed, from Really Simple to Ridiculously Complicated. They are capable of accomplishing tasks and tackling problems that they’ve never been able to do before. They are able, really, to handle an unfathomably complex world better than a human can. But exactly because they can, the way they work has become unfathomable too.”

He concludes: “Power here is buried somewhere within a process too complex for humans to grasp.” As we enter this new age of possibility for new kinds of abuses of power, it becomes ever more urgent for us to reclaim what we can, and seek to know what is happening to us, so we can powerfully resist.


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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