Friday, October 23, 2020

Tech and Capitalism: "From Manchester to Barcelona"

From Logic Magazine:

Building a better story about the internet.

For a long time, a certain set of assumptions dominated our digital imagination. These assumptions should be familiar enough. Information wants to be free. Anything that connects people is good. The government is bad. The internet is another world, where the old rules don’t apply. The internet is a place of individual freedom, which is above all the freedom to express oneself. 

Such ideas were never 100 percent hegemonic, of course. They were always contested, with varying degrees of success. Governments, for one, found several ways to assert their sovereignty over online spaces. Scholars sounded the alarm on the rise of the white supremacist web — the notorious neo-Nazi site Stormfront launched in 1996 — and presciently observed that the internet’s connectivity could also make the world worse.

Even so, these assumptions and the intellectual traditions they emanated from — techno-utopianism, cyberlibertarianism, the Californian Ideology — largely kept their grip on the common sense. The long 1990s is said to have begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ended with the attacks of September 11, 2001. But, when it came to our popular discourse about the internet, the long 1990s lasted a lot longer. 

Then came Snowden. In 2013, the former NSA contractor revealed that the internet was a vast spy machine for the American security state. A tremor of tech pessimism crept into public consciousness. Then came Trump. The media’s failure to anticipate the possibility of his victory in 2016 led it to amplify the significance of Russian influence operations via social media — operations that clearly existed, but which, at a moment of supreme disorientation, metastasized into the deus ex machina that could explain an inexplicable result. Yet this coping mechanism had a silver lining: it provided the initial spark for what has come to be known as the “techlash.”

Journalists and politicians began to pay closer, less credulous attention to the internet and the companies that control it. Disinformation remained a key concern, but far from the only one: a long series of tech scandals have fed the fire, too many to keep count. The right has also joined the fray: the (laughable) notion that the big platforms silence conservative voices has taken root in the reactionary mind, turning a range of right-wing figures into harsh critics of Silicon Valley.

The resulting shift is stark. A sharper tone prevails in the New York Times and on Fox News, in statehouses and on Capitol Hill. Criticisms once confined to scholarly circles, or to more oppositional outlets like The Baffler and Valleywag, have become conventional, even banal. One could be uncharitable about the heavy Kool-Aid drinkers who abruptly sobered up — there is no shortage of annoying figures among the late converts to tech critique — but the techlash has been a very good thing. We are at last having a more honest conversation about the internet. The long 1990s are over. The old gods are finally dead. 

Who are the new gods? This is what makes our moment so interesting: the conventional wisdom is cracking up but its replacement hasn’t quite consolidated. As James Bridle says, something is wrong on the internet — and something is wrong with the way we have thought about the internet — but there is not yet a widely accepted set of answers to the all-important questions of why these things are wrong, or how to make them right. 

Different camps are now competing to provide those answers. They are competing to tell a new story about the internet, one that can explain the origins of our present crisis and offer a roadmap for moving past it. Some talk about monopoly and antitrust. Others emphasize privacy and consent. Shoshana Zuboff proposes the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the new kinds of for-profit monitoring and manipulation that the internet and associated technologies have made possible. 

These analyses have important differences. But they tend to share a liberal understanding of capitalism as a basically beneficent system, if one that occasionally needs state intervention to mitigate its excesses. They also tend to equate capitalism with markets. Sometimes these markets become too consolidated and need to be made more competitive (the antitrust view); sometimes market actors violate the terms of fair exchange and need to be restrained (Zuboff’s view). But two articles of faith always remain. The first is that capitalism is more or less compatible with people’s desire for dignity and self-determination (or can be made so with proper regulation). The second is that capitalism is more or less the same thing as markets.

What if neither belief is true? This is the starting point for building a better story about the internet.

The Archipelago and the Network

If capitalism isn’t (only) markets, then what is it?

There have always been markets. Capitalism, by contrast, is relatively new. Its laws of motion first emerged in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and reached escape velocity with industrialization in the eighteenth and nineteenth.

If capitalism didn’t invent markets, however, it did make markets much more important. The historian Robert Brenner observes that capitalism is defined above all by market dependence. Pre-capitalist peasants can trade and barter, but they don’t depend on the market for life’s necessities: they grow their own food. In capitalist societies, on the other hand, the market mediates your access to the means of subsistence. You must buy what you need to survive, and to have the money to do so, you must sell your labor power for a wage. 

Market dependence doesn’t exist for its own sake. It serves an important function: to facilitate accumulation. Accumulation is the aim of any capitalist arrangement: to take a sum of value and make more value out of it. While markets are certainly central to capitalism, they aren’t what makes it tick. Accumulation is. To put it in a more Marxist idiom, capital is value in motion. As it moves, it expands. Capitalism, then, is a way to organize human societies for the purpose of making capital move. 

There are a few different methods for making capital move. The principal one is for capitalists to purchase people’s labor power, use it to create new value in the form of commodities, and then realize that value as profit by selling those commodities. A portion of the proceeds are reinvested into expanding production, so even more commodities can be made at lower cost, thus enabling our capitalist to compete effectively with the other capitalists selling the same commodities. 

This may seem entirely obvious, but it’s actually a very distinctive way of doing things. In other modes of social organization, the point of production is to directly fulfill people’s needs: think of subsistence farmers, growing food for their families to eat. Or the point is to make the rulers rich: think of the slaves of ancient Rome, doing the dirty work so that imperial elites could lead lives of luxury. 

What makes capitalism so unusual is that production (and accumulation) isn’t for anything exactly, aside from making it possible to produce (and accumulate) more. This obsession gives capitalism its extraordinary dynamism, and its revolutionary force. It utterly transforms how humans live and, above all, how they produce. Capitalism forces people to produce together, in increasingly complex combinations of labor. Production is no longer solitary, but social. ...