Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder and CEO Mark ZuckerbergGetty Images

Many of us are understandably worried about the dangers posed by the administration of Donald Trump, but there is every chance that his government will represent a blip in terms of the general direction of humanity. This is not to evoke the cliché about "keeping calm and carrying on" as some are apt to do, which is a recipe for quietism; it is more a case of recognising that democracy might be imperilled in the future by political forces besides the so-called "alt-right".

There could have been few better reminders of this than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's 6,000-word manifesto, published on Friday, in which he called on us to create a global community that "prevents harm, helps during crisis and rebuilds afterwards".

Zuckerberg comes across in the piece as a thoughtful man with little of the bumptious, thin-skinned arrogance that characterises the leader of the democratic world. "Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community," Zuckerberg writes, and "Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community."

It is perhaps worth noting first of all that, conceptionally at least, Zuckerberg is not being as revolutionary as he seems to think he is. Karl Marx talked in 1848 of the way in which "the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe...It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere". Similarly, in 1920 HG Wells published The Outline of History in which he argued that the story of humankind was one of coagulation into ever larger units. "It is this gradual world-wide realization of the practical necessity of unity and unified action that is the most significant feature of this phase in human affairs," Wells wrote.

It is not hard to understand what the appeal of global "unity" might have been in the aftermath of the First World War, when millions had recently been pointlessly slaughtered in the name of belligerent and squabbling nationalisms. Then as now, the greatest danger lay in the violent rejection of cosmopolitanism and cultural mixing by the masses. Then as now, the revolt was the small man shaking his angry fist both up and down – at wealthy "elites" and poor foreigners.

But just as there is a danger (as I wrote last week) in accepting the notion that western societies are divided sharply between "open and closed", so it is a mistake to rally behind the purveyors of a seemingly neutral "global community" without burrowing a little deeper. There are after all many forms that a global community might take, not all of which are necessarily desirable.

Even if you do view a world dominated by unaccountable tech companies as essentially benign, the grandiosity of Zuckerberg's vision should make you sit up in your seat. Thus Zuckerberg writes in his address to the world that "the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us" [emphasis mine].

Yet there is a fundamental problem with the benign-sounding idea that there can ever be a model of human progress which "works for all of us". If you are looking for an example of how a world that works for Mark Zuckerberg might not be the world that works for lots of other people, look no further than Facebook's historical tax arrangements. It took years of negative publicity before the company stopped channelling its profits through a subsidiary based in Ireland with its tax domicile in the Cayman Islands. Incredibly, until very recently HMRC had been paying Facebook more than it had been receiving in tax from the company – by buying up adverts telling people to pay their taxes.

Facebook eventually caved in to public protests and promised to pay UK tax on sales made by its UK team – rather than funnelling them through Ireland. Yet the case illustrated the fairly obvious point that the best interests of companies like Facebook are not necessarily the best interests of everyone else. In being "tax competitive", as the corporate jargon phrases it, Facebook was for a long time colluding in a system that causes great harm to, if not all people, then at least most of them. "Tax efficiency" invariably translates at some point into people being left on trolleys in the corridors of NHS hospitals through a lack of money.

But were Facebook to possess an exemplary record of public service the democratic objection to Zuckerberg's tech utopia of the future would remain: who elected Facebook's CEO and gave him his power? Who can strip him of that power if it is wielded in a way that at some point threatens the interests of others?

The longing for a benevolent figure to sweep away everything bad like a child sweeping away an army of green plastic soldiers was an animating feature of Donald Trump's path to power. Tempting as it may be to acquiesce in this sort of hubris when it stands in opposition to a resurgent small-minded nationalism, it is probably no less dangerous.


James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.