November 12, 2013

PayPal Is a Huge Weapon for the Powerful

I've written recently about what ought to be deeply disturbing aspects of Pierre Omidyar's new journalism venture: see here and here. My primary focus has been -- and remains -- on the fact that Omidyar, as the 123rd richest person on the entire planet, wields an extraordinary degree of power. He is now allied with Glenn Greenwald, who proclaims that a crucial part of his mission is "to reinvigorate journalism through 'an aggressive and adversarial position to political and corporate power,' an undertaking he will pursue through a new online publication backed with $250 million from the eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar ..."

I've pointed out that this formulation (from a NYT article I excerpted) is entirely accurate -- and it is also absolutely ludicrous. To believe that one of the leading oligarchs in the world is going to engage in a prolonged, public act of suicide by funding journalists who will call into question the basic structure of a system that permits him (and a few sanctified others) to accumulate this degree of wealth and power is to believe in the Tooth Fairy and that wishing will make it so. Individuals who devote their lives to acquiring vast wealth and power are not in the business of destroying themselves, or of aiding those whose work might challenge the foundations of their power. It may be true that we can be absolutely certain of very little in this world -- but we can be certain beyond any point of meaningful doubt that a man exercising vast power is not about to encourage journalism that takes an "adversarial position" to his power. To think otherwise is to engage in fantasy to a degree that shreds whatever slender reeds connect us to reality. To believe in the fantasy of the "good billionaire" in the required manner signifies only that one has decided to abandon facts, logic and reality altogether. (The only fantasy that approaches this in the scope of its self-delusion was the belief, shared by many in 2008, that Barack Obama was profoundly committed to "changing the very nature of politics." You would think that people would appreciate, certainly by now, how dangerous delusions of this kind can be -- and you would be grievously wrong.)

With this as general background, I find it very intriguing that other voices are challenging Greenwald and Omidyar with regard to the PayPal blockade of WikiLeaks. Tarzie has written about it here, focusing on how Greenwald is covering for Omidyar in connection with the PayPal controversy. And Alexa O'Brien writes about it here, in a post I urge you to read. The first major point O'Brien makes is this:
Omidyar has been "the director and Chairman of the Board since eBay's incorporation in May 1996." eBay owns Paypal.

The relationship between [...] eBay and PayPal is robust. PayPal is a major part of eBay's business. (See for example here and here.) I find it a bit unlikely that the Chairman of the Board of eBay would have never been involved in any discussion regarding the fiduciary health of one of its subsidiaries in relation to either the WikiLeaks blockade or the criminal indictment resulting from a high profile "cyber attack".
These observations are unquestionably critical in evaluating Omidyar's actions (and lack of action) with regard to the PayPal blockade of WikiLeaks.

But it is O'Brien's other major point that truly grabbed my attention:
The PayPal financial blockade against WikiLeaks gives any of [Omidyar's] new media ventures an [added after original publication: unfair] competitive advantage [added: in my opinion].
I think we can state this proposition without O'Brien's qualifying final remark: the PayPal blockade against WikiLeaks obviously gives Omidyar's new media venture an unfair competitive advantage. This is simply a statement of fact. And it is a particularly outrageous and sickening fact.

I also direct your attention to some of O'Brien's tweets on this subject. Here: "@ggreenwald PayPal blockade creates vicious cycle, not virtuous one for the rest of us. Result is @pierre benefits-- weakens competition." And scroll up and down from that tweet; the entire thread deserves careful reading. Take a look at this tweet, too: "@ggreenwald One could argue that you have never had more power than now to influence the PP blockade."

To my knowledge, there has yet to be a further clarification of Greenwald's or Omidyar's views with regard to the PayPal blockade and what, if anything, they are prepared to do about it. I would not suggest that you hold your breath waiting for an announcement that Omidyar has decided to open the floodgates to fund a competing organization.

Thus, we are presented with a situation where an individual and his allied companies are not only not bloody likely to foster journalism that takes an "adversarial position" with respect to his power -- but a situation where that individual and his allied companies are still actively throttling a significant competitor in the very field that Omidyar now prepares to enter.

But this is precisely how State capitalism (or corporatism) works, and how it has always worked. It's the only way State capitalism can work. This is what State capitalism is designed to do: to advance the interests of very powerful companies and/or individuals closely allied with the State, and to severely damage -- and ultimately destroy, if possible -- any and all serious competition to those same interests.

I will also add a footnote, in the nature of my own experience over the last day. Since my post yesterday, in which (among other things) I asked for donations, I've been told that at least one donor received some odd messages from PayPal while he was trying to make a donation. The purpose of those messages appeared to be to discourage him from completing his transaction. It didn't work in his case -- but I'm now wondering if anyone else also received odd or unexpected messages in the course of what should be a straightforward procedure. If you did, I would be very grateful if you'd let me know (and please provide as many details as you can).

I mention my own situation primarily to underscore how completely powerless most of us are when we deal with a behemoth like PayPal. If PayPal should decide to cut me off entirely at some point, there's not a damned thing I can do about it. If WikiLeaks can't stop PayPal from cutting off a major financial lifeline -- and it can't -- what the hell chance do I have? I also mention this PayPal business concerning me because, although I'll leave the PayPal donation button up for the moment, I strongly encourage people to make donations by mail from now on. And I could seriously use some mail donations in the coming weeks. If you'd like to have my address, please write me: arthur4801 at yahoo dot com . I also fervently hope that the day soon arrives when I'm able to ditch PayPal completely.

So what are the lessons? Most of them should be self-evident from the above discussion. I will set one lesson off by itself, and state it very simply: Unless you are an oligarch yourself -- or unless you are content to be kept by one -- oligarchs are not your friends.

I find it considerably more than slightly distressing that this appears to be news to many people, even those on the left side of the political spectrum. I guess we're all the spawn of Obama (or any Democrat or progressive of your choice) and Romney (or any Republican or conservative of your choice) now. I knew there was a reason I've always been vehemently in favor of easily obtained and widely practiced means of birth control.