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? NOTES 1. Evgeny Morozov, "Critique of Techno-Feudal Reason," in New Left Review 133/34: https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii133/articles/evgeny-morozov-critique-of-techno-feudal-reason 2. Timothy Erik Strom, "Capital and Cybernetics," in New Left Review 135: https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii135/articles/timothy-erik-strom-capital-and-cybernetics
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