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Book review: ‘Hegemony Now’ by Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams

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How did technology help concentrate so much power in the hands of so few?

From the writings of an Italian political theorist more than a century ago to the observation that there were no generic structural changes in popular music in the first decade of the 21st century, ‘Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (And How We Win it Back)’ (Verso, £16.99, ISBN 9781786633149) is an extraordinary extended essay on the evolution of political power, finance and the role technology has played in that.

A few short years ago - before the Trump presidency, Brexit and Covid came along - we knew where we were, say Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams. Well, if we didn’t exactly know where we were, we knew where we weren’t, because the way the world spun was based on the economics of neoliberalism. It was structured and obeyed rules. There was one (admittedly broad) church and everyone in the western hemisphere worshipped there. Then it changed. Not only did it change, but unthinkable things started to happen.

It was a long time coming, say our authors, who trace our brave new world to when the international stock exchanges became fully computerised. This was the moment digital technology and finance collided in the so-called 'Big Bang' to open the door for companies such as Apple to create wealth greater than the GDP of half the planet’s countries. Globalisation meant that manufacturing could be packed off to China, so that desktop computers, mobile phones and digitalised pop-culture could be put in the hands of the consumer. This is a large part of what the somewhat intimidating term 'hegemony' means in the title of their book.

Although it has many dictionary definitions, we’re not talking about the general abstract ideas that can be traced to classical Greek linguistics. We’re talking about how so much power can get into the hands of so few today. It’s not a new idea and the authors don’t claim that it is. They just think it needs updating from the perspective of a post-digital neoliberal world in which the wheels seem to have come off.

Technology is an epicentre of this change. There is the tension between the tearing down of a Berlin Wall of information and its re-erection in the form of hawk-like guardianship of intellectual property. There’s the idea that software can only be sold at scale when hardware is cheap, counterpointed by the equally fossilised view that you can only sell hardware at meaningful prices if there is plenty of free software. But there’s more, so much more, to their examination of how neoliberalism benefits the few, when it shouldn’t.

‘Hegemony Now’ appears in a post-Covid, post-Trump global political landscape. While our authors may have sensed radical tensions in the Russian fossil fuel energy market coming down the line, it’s simply a fact that books unfold more slowly than international politics, making it easy to imagine that Gilbert and Williams are already busily writing new chapters for an expanded second edition.

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