Why an Occupy activist turned Googler thinks Eric Schmidt should run the US

Next act: dictator for life?
Next act: dictator for life?
Image: AP Photo/LM Otero
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Justine Tunney is an engineer at Google. But she’s also, by her own account, a founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement. (Other Occupy protesters take issue with that description, but one thing is for sure, she was active and visible in Occupy for three years.) At the intersection of these two unlikely facts is a third—Tunney recently launched a petition on the website of the White House to appoint Google chairman Eric Schmidt as “CEO of America,” replacing president Barack Obama in what would amount to a bloodless coup.

Mostly, this proposal has been met with mockery. As of this writing, the original petition has only 32 signatures.

But as I discovered when I interviewed Tunney, her views are entirely sincere. And while some of her individual ideas may seem outlandish, at their core is a strain of thinking that has gained at least a toe-hold in Silicon Valley: The US government is so broken, it’s up to the tech industry to fix and/or secede from it.

What follows is a lightly-edited but more-or-less full transcript of our interview. My questions begin with “Q”; under separate sub-headings, I’ve included interesting excerpts that weren’t answers to a specific question.

(Reminder: You can comment by clicking on the [+] to the right of any paragraph, unless you’re reading on a mobile phone.)

Update: Tunney points out that (of course) these views are her own and do not represent those of her employer, Google.

Q: So what do you make of the blowback against your proposal to make Eric Schmidt CEO of America?

Sometimes it can be trendy to hate on people and it makes it hard to discuss ideas. There’s a lot of faux outrage. Loyalists cherish the opportunity to feel outrage.

Q: Who are “loyalists”?

Loyalists are people who are indoctrinated in the state ideology—it’s liberal identity politics. They police the language in accord with the state ideology, and are completely loyal to the state regime.

It amazes me that with the government this unpopular, that claims to rule in the interest of the people, and meanwhile people are suffering and disenfranchised and don’t have any say in government, that things I propose—peaceful regime change—are completely unthinkable.

Q: What’s your political identification?

I don’t identify with a particular ideology. I consider myself a free thinker. I have no qualms about stealing ideas from the far left or the right, or centrist ideas. I mostly just try to seek the truth. Sometimes the truth is unpopular but I say it anyway.

…On her three years as a leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement

Our country is in a total decline. The people we’ve had the past 50 years were not the people we had the previous 50 years.

My experience with Occupy was dealing with the worst of state repression. It’s given me a unique perspective because I’ve seen things many people haven’t seen. I could write a book about all the things I’ve seen and done with Occupy—it’s absolutely incredible.

I’m just going to ramble, it all started in the beginning. I saw the things Wall Street was doing to this country. They’re some of the smartest people in this country, and they think because they read a book by Ayn Rand they don’t have to help society.

They’re noblesse sans oblige. They think the game of life is to use their smarts and take as much as they can.

People criticize Gmail but at least Google gives you cool stuff like Gmail. What does Goldman Sachs give you? Nothing—it’s evil.

…On the morality of the 1%

Now, I don’t consider all of the 1% to be evil. You can get rich making the world a better place, or making the world worse. I differentiate between the corporations that do good and those that don’t.

I truly believe Google is making the world a better place.

At Google, I work on the generic TLD system. [Editor’s note: these are new “top-level domains,” like .google and .youtube, for which Google has applied as part of a general expansion of the TLD system.] I’m just an entry-level employee, I’m nobody special.

Q: Do you think part of the negative reaction to your petition has to do with your working at Google?

Yes people have a knee-jerk reaction to the things I say. People can tell I don’t speak the same political language. As for Google, people are afraid of the specter of threats that don’t actually exist. But what people forget is the entire foundation of civilization and society is trust and mutual vulnerability. You could say Google could suddenly turn evil and tell people what sort of dirty things I look at on the internet. At the same time anyone on the street could stab me, but people don’t because social contracts are in place.

Google has nothing to gain from violating people’s trust. Google’s entire business is built on trust. That’s why it works so hard to please users and give them things they want. Google is an easy target for anger.

People like to lash out at easy targets, but people forget it’s the data-collection companies we haven’t heard about that are the real threat, companies like Acxiom. They’re literally just selling your data every single day, and they don’t give you anything in exchange. They keep that power to themselves. [Editor’s note: Acxiom recently began showing people the data the company has collected on them.]

Google on the other hand [gathers data] for the sole purpose of benefiting you. They use that data to benefit humanity. Whereas NSA [the US National Security Agency] just uses that data to preserve state power.

Q: So are you completely in earnest about your petition to have Google board chair Eric Schmidt take over from president Obama as “CEO of America”?

I think it would be a good idea. I’m not sure if Eric would accept the job. Fixing America would be a tough challenge, but the US regime as it currently stands is so incompetent, it can’t even keep itself running. Back in November it had a 9% approval rating.

The current regime sets a very low bar. It’s not going to be hard to improve on what we have.

Another thing is if you look at the tech industry leaders, take Google for example, every year it gets ranked the best place in the world to work. The workers at Google are treated better than any workers in history. Even union employees don’t get the same level of nice things and benefits as we do. One thing people complain about is they’re struggling, have a hard time accessing material necessities, if people want to be treated better why wouldn’t they want tech industry leaders running their government? Why wouldn’t they want, you know, tech leaders from Google running their government?

Q: But isn’t appointing a “CEO of America” anti-democratic?

It would certainly create tension in our culture. But if the tech industry did take power, if they handled it right they’d come up with all sorts of brilliant solutions [to popular opposition] that would be better than anything I could propose.

If your read about especially Millennials, no one has any faith in this political system. What the US regime calls democracy is basically political theater meant to entertain people. There’s a certain population [of people in the US] who like to meddle in others’ affairs and have to do things to keep people occupied and interested so they don’t riot in the streets.

Democracy is in many ways a social control mechanism. People engage in liberal belief politics and they argue with their friends, but very few people who politic are doing anything in the outside world. But they’ll get angry at friends and family if they don’t share the same views, it’s really toxic to our culture.

It’s all a lie—more and more people are realizing that US democracy is a complete sham.

I don’t claim to have the answers—obviously I’ve never run a government before—but when I look at the US the only people I see having a positive impact and having a really well-run organization, it’s the tech industry. If we have to pick somebody to run this country, why not them?

With Occupy I spent three years of my life fighting power. Ultimately I was hoping we could live in a society where everyone would be happy and there would be no evil corporations or governments ruling our lives.

I failed in that—I could write a book about that. I gave it my best shot—I identify as an anarchist, but I ultimately failed. Occupy was in my opinion successful even if it didn’t start a revolution.

But we still have the US regime. If we’re still going to be ruled by the US regime, we should find a better corporation, because the government is just another corporation.

Q: How is the US government a corporation?

The US government is not a [capital-C] Corporation, but in many ways there are so many parallels to the behavior of the US regime when you compare to, like, Corporations.

Our government is very profit-driven. It extracts some surplus value from our labor in the form of taxes, and then it gives it to Wall Street. Instead of shares it issues government bonds, many of which are held by China. China is a major stockholder in the US regime, and so is Saudi Arabia.

If we’re owned by a corporation who owns most of North America and we can’t get rid of it, we might as well demand a better corporation.

Q: Would Schmidt be CEO of America for life?

That’s honestly not an area I focus on. I think one of the shortcomings of many activists is they spend too much time fetishizing process and they’re really missing the point. The point is to solve problems. We have so many problems in our society. People don’t talk about problems, they just talk about money, and voting.

Voting doesn’t solve problems, solving problems solves them. Also I’m an engineer. We don’t politic, we just get things done. Engineers don’t want to control everybody, we just want to make cool things and make the world a better place.

Q: So if Schmidt is CEO of America for life that’s OK?

Anything is better than what we have now. The US regime sets a very low bar.

…On Silicon Valley’s drive to become its own country

A lot of the things I’m saying might sound completely out in left field, but most people don’t know how a lot of powerful people in Silicon Valley are actually talking about secession [from the United States].

There’s a video where, at the Y-combinatior startup school, a VC [venture capitalist] got up in front of new business owners and said, “Look guys, we need to come up with ways to get more independence from governments so we can have an exit and start our own country.”

Many techies are politically autistic. For the longest time Silicon Valley didn’t even care about politics. Techies have always felt disenfranchised and disrespected by the political process in this country—just look at the way people are talking about me.

If we can’t fix our government, Plan B is, these guys [Silicon Valley VCs and entrepreneurs] are just going to want out. That’s something people need to put on their political radar.

[Google CEO] Larry Page himself talked about how he wanted to start a country for grand experiments like self-driving cars. Tech industry growth is hitting a wall where politicians don’t want us to do the things we want to do because they don’t understand technology.

Self-driving cars is no longer an engineering problem, it’s a political problem. Techies have to coddle politicians, and that makes it really hard for geeks to do what geeks do.

Q: But doesn’t the notion that the tech industry should take control of the USA assume that the interests of Silicon Valley represent those of the USA?

There are many different regions of the US that have completely different values and want completely different things. The same thing could easily be said about the Bible Belt or near Salt Lake City or in the Northeast. Texas talks about secession too and so does Cascadia.

A lot of groups in this country hate each other. If you want to rule the entire [United States] it’s very difficult—that’s one reason the US regime is so tyrannical. It’s very hard to keep all these groups happy when they want completely different things.

Q: You mention tyranny, but you’re OK with America having a CEO-in-chief?

Ideally I’d like to see the US regime broken up into smaller nation- and city-states, so each region could do what they want to do. This is one strategy I’m just proposing. I’m not saying it’s the best idea, just a good idea.

I’ve been disenfranchised my whole life by the current system. One reason I took the job at Google is that I used to be homeless and had cancer. No one was willing to support me even with work I was doing on Occupy. They considered me untouchable because I had the word “revolution” on my website.

Loyalists are so invested in this system that’s absolutely tyrannical—they don’t want to see things change. And now tensions are escalating with the tech industry.

No one complains about Wall Street anymore, just the techies. it makes me worried about the future.