A New Era in Tech Nationalism

Microsoft just won a massive contract from the Defense Department, showing how nationalism, militarism, and corporate power intermingle in the tech industry. Our response must be to unite tech workers across borders — and reject the jingoism that divides us.

The Microsoft building in China. (Gen Kanai / Flickr)

It is now undeniable that Microsoft is part of the US war machine. Late last month, the tech company won a ten-year, $10 billion contract from the Defense Department — giving it the chance to completely remake the US military’s digital infrastructure, from providing basic storage to using artificial intelligence to “increase the [military’s] lethality.

Microsoft wasn’t the only company bidding on the project, known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI). Amazon, IBM, and Oracle all threw their hats in the ring, too. But Microsoft stole the prize at the final hour from Amazon, which had been seen as the front-runner. Only Google dropped its bid, claiming the contract “didn’t align with their AI principles.” The decision was likely a tactical one — knowing that its cloud platform lacked the required government certifications to win (and facing internal pressure from employees), Google opted to cash out on the good press instead.

At eleven figures, JEDI is by far the largest-ever Pentagon cloud contract and marks the dawn of a new age of AI-embedded technological militarism. But unlike the Jedi who fought to restore freedom and justice in the galaxy, this contract feels closer to the oppressive agenda of the bad guys in the cinematic Star Wars saga — the Imperial Forces.

Beyond the horrors of American warfare, the JEDI contract marks a new era in tech nationalism, and reveals how nationalist rhetoric is used to advance corporate interests and the US imperial project.

The US Government and Silicon Valley

In an attempt to maintain global technological hegemony, the United States has done what it can to delegitimize China as an international actor and prevent its economic ascent. Part of this effort involves maintaining the illusion of the free global market. Under the reigning international system, multinationals must appear neutral when operating in foreign countries; private and state capital must appear completely separate.

Once this fiction is established, the Chinese can be pilloried for breaking the rules. Because many Chinese tech firms receive government funding, the United States claims that they can’t be trusted to operate fairly within the rules of the free market. In addition to launching a broader trade war, the United States has banned the Chinese phone manufacturer Huawei from selling phones in the United States and harshly criticized TikTok, the viral Chinese video-based social media platform that has been eating into Snapchat’s global market share. State Department officials have labeled tech companies Alibaba and Tencent tools of the Chinese government.

Yet these attacks on Chinese tech reek of hypocrisy given the countless partnerships between the US government and Silicon Valley. The tech industry’s collaboration with the Department of Defense is part of a long tradition of intermingling between the government and the private tech sector. The existence of the internet itself, which was developed as a military technology, is now the lifeblood of Google, Facebook, and some of the highest-valued companies in the world. Just like China, the United States funds American businesses to operate globally in the interest of the American ruling class.

JEDI is the latest example. The partnership doesn’t just foster military expansion, but also operates as a major subsidy to Microsoft to entrench its global dominance in the cloud market. If the US government truly played by its own rules, it would’ve allowed foreign companies to bid on the contract. (Alibaba Cloud — Alibaba’s cloud computing platform, only second in maturity to Microsoft’s and Amazon’s clouds — would’ve made a strong contender.)

Beyond JEDI and other military contracts, the US government also directly subsidizes America’s private tech firms in the form of tax incentives. In 2017, Microsoft avoided billions in taxes by parking its money in Puerto Rico. This year, Amazon paid $0 in federal taxes on $11.2 billion worth of profit.

Similar measures are common at the municipal level — as when New York City and Arlington, Virginia offered Amazon $2 billion in subsidies for their new headquarters and when Facebook and Google pit cities against each other, goading them to offer higher tax incentives for the chance to host the companies’ data centers.

In other words, the US government, not unlike that of the Chinese, is very much in the business of subsidizing tech companies’ continual expansion into all corners of the planet.

In this escalating game of technological military advancement, both states have used nationalism to justify militarism and quash dissent. Like Chinese technology companies, Microsoft takes its support for the military as a patriotic duty. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s chief legal officer, jingoistically offered to never shy away from providing AI-powered weapons to the US military: “We at Microsoft have their back.”

Last year, in response to employee uproar over a different multimillion contract with the Defense Department, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that he would not “withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy.” Baiting his employees into a nationalistic response, his statement was reminiscent of Cold War–era rhetoric: under the pretense of democracy and freedom, any US agenda is just.

Some Microsoft employees share the same nationalist viewpoint. In a Facebook group for new employees, many expressed excitement that their company had beaten out Amazon for the $10 billion contract. Those expressing anti-JEDI opinions were met with jingoistic fervor: “It is a free country with a free market. Sell your shares, and move companies. This is America, this is what freedom looks like.”

Another side of this nationalist rhetoric is anti-Chinese animus, which has been used to persuade liberal employees — the majority at most tech firms — to support military partnerships. Earlier this year, a group of Microsoft workers demanded that their company cancel its “augmented reality” contract with the US Army. But they were met with resistance from other employees who, despite being wary of building weapons technology, insisted that the defense contract continue in order to keep China’s military in check.

With China and the United States neck in neck in various cutting-edge technology, anti-Chinese sentiment in Silicon Valley has only escalated. In the past, American firms attacked China for its lack of innovation and “stealing technology.” But today, tech CEOs are blatantly fanning the flames of nationalism in order to break the rules and keep Chinese tech at bay. Recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insisted that lawmakers stop trying to regulate Facebook or else China will “win.” Even some left-leaning politicians have joined in: Senator Elizabeth Warren released a plan earlier this year touting “economic patriotism” and identifying China as an economic enemy that must be met with harsher measures.

The Tech Industry’s Jingoism

The tech industry clearly has a nationalism problem. Intent on boosting their profits and global market share, tech leaders are using jingoism to justify ethically dubious decisions, while politicians use it to rationalize a closer partnership between the tech industry and the military. Worst still, the kind of techno-militaristic nationalism seen in the JEDI project could eventually set off a catastrophic AI-arms race.

Our response must be to start building an internationalist politics that connects Chinese and US tech workers and rejects the nationalism that pushes us to think we have more in common with our bosses than with other workers.

Earlier this year, a group of Microsoft employees showed how this can be done. Repudiating the nationalist logic of us-versus-them, they wrote a letter to show solidarity with Chinese tech workers fighting against the brutal working hours of “996” (9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week). Because the anti-996 campaign was hosted on the Microsoft code-sharing platform, GitHub, it was difficult for Chinese tech companies to censor it without blocking GitHub entirely. The best way to remove the campaign was to directly ask Microsoft to pull the project. Anticipating this, Microsoft employees demanded that GitHub be kept uncensored and accessible for 996 protesters. In their letter, they wrote: “We, the workers of Microsoft and GitHub, support the 996.ICU movement and stand in solidarity with tech workers in China,” adding, “multinational companies will pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom as they outsource jobs and take advantage of weak labor standards in the pursuit of profit.”

The JEDI contract has now been sealed, but it’s not too late for tech workers to fight back. Like these Microsoft employees, we need to develop connections across borders and build lasting transnational solidarity. Tech workers need to keep organizing to reject the rising militarism and Chinese fearmongering in Silicon Valley. Only then can our vision for tech be one with the Jedi — a force that fights for freedom and justice.