I was gratified to find no less than Evgeny Morozov taking down the concept
of "technofeudalism" in a recent issue of the New Left Review (1). The
reason why is that in my view, most Marxists now totally underestimate - or
even seem shockingly ignorant of - the actual operations of corporate
capitalists. Instead of observing how the firms work, Marxists now come up
with hipster concepts, the more facile or idealizing the better. If it's
feudal it's personal, it's about the oligarchs, it smells bad, so you can
criticize Peter Thiel's abusive personality and his sadistic drives. Fine,
I'm down with that, but you learned nothing about his companies along the
way. Or instead, in a more sophisticated version that Morozov analyzes very
well, it's a rentier situation, it's feudal because the net capitalist
simply owns a data set and derives a parasitic rent from it, while all the
creativity resides in the working class. This type of technofeudalist
reasoning ranges from the Italian autonomists to Zuboff's notion of
surveillance capitalism, and it conveniently puts *you* at the center of
the picture: it's *your* data, *you* produced it, *you* are the source of
all value, but an entire feudal system is conspiring to keep *you* in
chains. Sure, and the revolution will begin when *you* find that out!

Morozov is entirely right to insist that neither of these proposals says
anything about the vast, interlocking circuits of industrial and
communicational firms, whose operations produce the concrete details of the
world we live in, the clickbait, the shopping malls, the intermodal ports,
the oil wells, the surveillance systems. It's obvious to me that these
things are built and maintained according to an overarching logic, a highly
modern one indeed, some sort of state/capitalist logic that conditions the
actions of all the participating individual capitals. Understanding this
logic would allow us to characterize the incredibly disparate technology
sets that govern us concretely. And Morozov has found the secret! According
to him, Google does not occupy a rentier position, it's actually a standard
capitalist firm, it sells ads, that's its business model. It's really as
simple as that, case closed, no need for concepts like technofeudalsm or
surveillance capitalism.

Of course there is more to Morozov's article. In fact it's quite a
brilliant recap of competing currents in Marxist analysis, between those
who focus on labor exploitation (carried out by competitive firms) and
those who focus on expropriation (carried out by monopoly firms closely
associated with states). In short it's Brenner versus Wallerstein, a
historical debate that Morozov resuscitates in a highly pertinent and
elucidating way. Nonetheless, his conclusion about the standard capitalist
model is pitifully weak and lamentable, as though the failure of
tendentious hipster theories argued against any theory at all. Really, it's
a weirdly off-point article, and in the end, a highly academic one, like
thesis research. So I was again highly gratified to read the takedown of
Morozov by Timothy Erik Strom, in an article called "Capital and
Cybernetics" that just came out (open access btw) in the latest New Left
Review (2).

Strom hails from an Australian journal I never heard of, called Arena. It
must be great, because his article sure is. He begins his analysis at the
right place, with the world-shaping political-economic power of the US
state in the WWII era. He then goes on to explore the new capitalist
business model that emerged within the reshaped "arena" of postwar
political economy. For Strom, both raw power and capitalist profit have a
basis in scientific abstraction, which itself must be deliberately produced
and applied by the state-capitalist classes. His concept of cybernetic
capitalism fits into one tightly argued paragraph:

"The idea of abstraction is crucial to the concept of cybernetic
capitalism. As a techno-science, cybernetics is concerned with
communication and control between people and technology. Here it can be
read as shorthand for a particular mode of inquiry - instrumentalized
techno-scientific research, which creates new abstractions - combined with
a mode of (disembodied) communication, via networked computing-machines,
and a mode of organization: a distributed network, managed by centralized
bureaucracies. These cybernetic features are combined with 'capitalism',
shorthand for a mode of production - the rationalized and privatized
bringing forth of goods so as to extract and concentrate the maximum amount
of surplus in the hands of the owners of capital - combined with a mode of
exchange — money, mediating relationships within financialized circuits —
and a mode of consumption; or rather, intense levels of commodity
overconsumption. The advantage of this more expansive 'mode of practice'
framing over the more usual 'mode of production' is that it acknowledges
the importance of other practices besides producing goods: communication,
exchange, inquiry, consumption and organization, with each aspect of these
having economic, political, cultural and ecological components."

This is much better than Morozov: it cuts straight to the chase, rather
than beating around the theoretical bush. Strom is saying that the new
standard model of contemporary capitalism emerges when technoscience is
applied to produce and condition the environments in which business
operations are carried out and consumer choices are made. This is a classic
cybernetic strategy: to become the master of a feedback loop you do not
attempt to directly control all the participating nodes. Instead, you
create and continuously adjust the framework in which those nodes interact.
You do this with architecture, with media, with networks, with interaction
design, and also with the characteristic forms of contemporary governance:
tax policies, regulatory systems, surveillance and police control of
problematic individuals. For Strom, the classic expample of this type of
cybernetic capitalism is Google, just as it was for Morozov. Indeed, Strom
lists in slightly more detail than Morozov all of Alphabet's endeavors, the
core services, the ads, the AI, the educational programs, the network
infrastructure, the self-driving car research - and I would add quite
crucially, the provision of information services to governments that became
obvious through Eric Schmidt's collaboration's with the American state.
Surely no other company has done so much to shape the practical and
informational environments in which we live, and which we help modulate all
the time, through the feedback information that we deliver to Google's
servers on Google's terms. However, you could also find a lot of rivals for
Google's world-shaping powers: Amazon, for instance, or Apple, or the
Chinese state, or the NSA, etc etc. It's a short article, but Strom makes a
good start on analyzing how these different kinds of entities interact: in
one brilliant paragraph he shows how the creation of free money by the
Federal Reserve (and other central banks, I would add) has fueled the
growth of financial corporations like Vanguard, BlackRock and Fidelity,
which have in turn poured money into the tech titans, enabling their R&D
departments to carry out research and innovation on scales that go beyond
the nation-states of yore. An overarching logic binds these different
entities together, that's the point.

So to wrap it up, the "standard model" of contemporary capitalism is
definitely not a firm selling advertising widgets. Nor even less is it a
mere parasite feeding on *your* boundless creativity. Instead, the standard
model now entails an expansive "mode of practice" that actively builds,
monitors and adjusts the productive/communicative frameworks in which the
individual's tastes and productive potentials will be expressed, actualized
and satisfied, ideally with no leftover energies of dissent. This is a
tremendously innovative model of political economy, very much comparable to
the inventions of the European bourgeoisies when they set up the early
factories on the back of a world market created by state-sponsored
colonization and the plantation system. Morozov is right, it's idiotic to
call such a system "technofeudalism." Yet it's also a pity that despite all
the insights of Marx, today's Marxists are by and large incapable of
analyzing cybernetic logic and its consequences in concrete and
quantifiable terms. At least Strom, and perhaps some other Arena authors,
have got a start on it.

Still, one large and timely question remains unasked: What are the Googles
and Amazons and all their political allies going to do in the face of an
emergent governing logic that is not cybernetic at all, but instead, aims
at ideological and police control of individual bodies characterized by
sex, class and race? In short, what is cybernetic capitalism going to do
about the new fascism?


1. Evgeny Morozov, "Critique of Techno-Feudal Reason," in New Left Review

2. Timothy Erik Strom, "Capital and Cybernetics," in New Left Review 135:
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