May 19, 2021 - 11:25am

Is the interplay of power and surrender a pervy thing, a political thing — or something else altogether? I wrote recently about the way the popularity of ‘BDSM’ reflects a longing for hierarchy in a culture officially committed to egalitarianism. Now, though, a new app seeks to detach the seductive business of either taking or surrendering power from the clammy hands of the whips-and-chains community, and put it to newly-sanitised work-making money instead.

NewNew is an iPhone and Android app that allows you to pay to control others peoples’ lives. Users create polls on anything they like, and followers pay a small sum to vote. In many respects, NewNew echoes what BDSM practitioners call ‘power exchange’ — that is, a voluntary agreement in which one party relinquishes part of their autonomy to another’s control, in the interests of mutual pleasure.

NewNew’s Terms of Service are unambiguous in forbidding creators on the website to post content or polls that are sexual or pornographic, but it’s hard to miss the seductive voyeurism in the app’s offer to ‘Control what real people do’ and ‘Watch them do it’. The app itself scrolls through intro videos posted by young, attractive ‘creators’ who gush about being ‘so excited’ to ‘let you control my life’. And the flirtatious demeanour of many ‘creators’ in their intro videos makes the seductive sub-text (pun intended) abundantly clear.

Arguably though it’s less that NewNew is something pervy in disguise, as that playing with power and hierarchy has escaped the bounds of fetish subculture. And this proliferation of opportunities to play power games is driven in no small part by the way meaningful political agency is increasingly draining from our lives.

In his profile of ‘yacht influencer’ Alex Jimenez Oliver Bateman quotes Jimenez, on what owning a superyacht really means. In Jimenez’ view “it’s a signal that ‘you’re beyond buying and selling. You have more money than there is money to have. You’ve transcended.”

That world is pulling rapidly away from the one most of us live in. Joel Kotkin recently outlined in painstaking detail the consolidation of a new super-oligarchy that’s increasingly unmoored from 20th-century democratic constraints and working fast to consolidate its worldview and class interests. In this world, the people with agency are not voters, or even national politicians, but those who have — in Jimenez’ terms — ‘transcended’.

For those who haven’t attained this blessed state, which is to say all but a fraction of a percentage point of the human race, NewNew represents a kind of toy neo-feudalism. It’s a game in which people excluded from meaningful power in the emerging political order can role play at hierarchy.

And meanwhile, a new, real hierarchy is emerging — one that includes some of NewNew’s investors. And even as it encourages the rest of us to play at exchanging control and surrender for pocket money, that hierarchy is busy consolidating its power.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.