The corporate state – in transition to surveillance

Image: Tuur Tisseghem


Humanity watches inertly the emergence of a new form of totalitarianism, this time, only market, controlled by those who control the algorithms

“The interests of States and corporations are now fundamentally coincident: to increase production and consumption and guarantee the international flow of natural resources at prices that guarantee the maximum rate of profit for private and state-owned companies, in short, for the State-Corporation” (Luiz Marques).

“Surveillance: key word of future times” (Jacques Attali).

We are experiencing yet another historical transition, like many that occurred in the past, in which hegemonic structures, molded from the prevailing cosmovision in each era, guided the course of civilization and marked the long trajectory of patriarchal culture. Relying initially on the strength of arms of great empires (Ancient Age), then on the contradictions of Christianity (Middle Age) and, more recently, on the chimerical idea of ​​progress (Modern Age), the homo historicus, always placing itself at the center of the Universe, reached the current stage of capitalist sociability (Contemporary Age), which reached its global supremacy from the neoliberalism inaugurated in the 1970s and, thus, shaped the reality of almost all of humanity according to a techno-market view of the world, which nowadays gains political expression through the protagonism of a new entity called the State-corporation. In seeking the minimum State, neoliberal doctrine created the maximum Corporation State.

This concept of the State-corporation is very well identified and outlined by the professor of the Department of History at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at Unicamp, Luiz Marques, in his book Capitalism and environmental collapse (Unicamp edition). By the way, an essential book for anyone who wants to go deeper and understand the gravity of issues related to climate change, and which is referenced in the most unequivocal scientific evidence about the ongoing environmental catastrophe.

In this work, Marques highlights as one of the main vectors responsible for the imminent environmental collapse, the process of change in the nature of the State sponsored by the advance of megacorporations. According to him, “until the 1980s there was an irreducible difference in identity between States and corporations”, a moment from which “the entire framework of more or less democratic political representation created by the centuries-old history of national States thus loses its relative effectiveness”. ”, generating a phenomenon in which “the States are absorbed in the logic of the national or transnational corporate network”. As a result of this mutation process, we now have the new state-corporation form in operation.

Who also identified this phenomenon was the philosopher Marilena Chauí, who sees in neoliberalism not only the capture of the State but a new totalitarianism, the totalitarianism of the market, since “instead of the form of the State absorbing society, as happened in previous totalitarian forms, we see the opposite occur, that is, the form of society absorbs the State”. According to Chauí, the disastrous consequences of this current totalitarianism are: (1) the precariousness of the new platform working class, not to say contemporary slaves, constituted by the new “entrepreneur of himself”, with its dramatic psychological effects; (2) the end of social democracy and liberal representative democracy and the advent of “politicians” outsiders, whose mediation with the people no longer takes place through institutionality, but through the digital party (telegram, facebook, twitter, whatsapp, youtube and the like); (3) the ideological “cleansing” (political, social, artistic, scientific, etc.) that seeks to eliminate critical thinking and raises a kind of rescuing of that European desire for “purity” that we thought had been overcome after the horrors of the 4th century ; (5) the supremacy of capitalism, now shielded by algorithms, as the only and last form of human coexistence, announcing the “end of history”, in which there is no longer room for any possibility of historical transformation, alterity and utopia; (XNUMX) and in the religious field, the prevalence of neo-Pentecostal prosperity theology, the result of the association of religious fundamentalisms with authoritarian governments. This whole set represents the newest and most perverse expression of the patriarchy that, under the aegis of a “market god”, is dragging us into a dystopian world.

The collapse of the nation-state, together with the democratic ideal with which it was constitutively linked in most Western countries, was also well diagnosed by the sociologist José de Sousa Silva, when he stated that “the crisis of the nation-state also represents the crisis of representative democracy, as its practice assumes the existence of a sovereign and autonomous entity to manage it. For this reason, representative democracy is no longer able to represent the majority of society, and is quickly becoming the art of deceiving the people: those elected do not decide and those who decide are not elected. The people have never elected those who run transnational corporations, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), etc., whose functioning takes place far from public scrutiny and without the participation of citizens. But that is where policies are formulated and decisions are made that are already transforming, to a greater or lesser extent, the future of societies”.

The biggest aggravating factor of this inversion of the mode of suppression of democratic regimes, operated by the forces of capital and no longer by the coercive forces of the State itself, is the tendency of gradual deconstitution and disappearance of the State, as predicted by the French economist Jacques Attali, who, despite due to its patriarchal nature, it represents the last space for conquering the guarantee and maintenance of social rights, that is, guaranteeing the permanence of our matristic nostalgia. Another dangerous aggravating factor is that, without the State, whose main function is to guarantee the minimum civility that capital is incapable of providing, any possibility of channeling and moderating the violence of predatory and exclusive competition inherent to the nature of the free market disappears.

Another worrying symptom of the crisis of capitalist democracy is the growing fraying of the social fabric, caused by the insanity of an endless search for a material realization inaccessible to all, induced by the fetish of pleasures created by the market, the main mechanism that induces the countless mental pathologies that affect modern society since before the time of Freud. As the political philosopher John Gray noted, “Liberal capitalism is bankrupt. For all its talk of freedom and choice, liberalism was, in practice, the experiment in dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of raising material living standards.

In this new world (dis)order, transnational corporations represent the new Leviathan. For this reason, it is not uncommon to observe, in recent times, terrible conjectures by well-known thinkers pointing out that civilization is moving towards a new and overwhelming barbarism. One of them, for example, was the Hungarian philosopher István Mészáros, who died in 2017, for whom “Rosa Luxemburgo's famous phrase, 'socialism or barbarism', needs to be reformulated for our time into 'barbarism, if we are lucky'. The annihilation of humanity is our lot if we fail to conquer that mountain which is the destructive and self-destructive power of the state formations of the capital system.”

The fact is that in the last twenty years, reality has been shaped, without any resistance, by algorithms. A cybernetic view of the world has been dangerously consolidating. Since the technological revolution that began in the 1980s, market sociability has been undergoing abrupt and accelerated changes, with an unprecedented capacity to alter human behavior. Capitalist inventiveness seems to have no limits to explore new frontiers of subjectivity and, in this way, it creates and recreates desires and imposes on humanity new patriarchal ways of living, which are accepted without much questioning, however dystopian they may seem.

Today, there is already a consensus that the capitalist system managed, through neoliberal doctrine in symbiosis with technology, to transmute itself, simultaneously, in almost all countries, to a platform capitalism, increasingly unaffected by democratic regimes. . In a very enlightening article about this mutation, entitled Data commodification, economic concentration and political control as elements of platform capitalism's autophagy, researcher Roberto Moraes describes, based on many research sources, the social, political and economic phenomenology behind this new platform capitalism, which “denies politics to manipulate democracy and promote chaotic governments” and has become the most capital's new mode of reproduction and has also been shaping the various dimensions of human experience.

The expression “platform capitalism” was coined in 2017 by Canadian professor of digital economics, Nick Srnicek, and seems to be the most used to describe the new capitalist model. Other authors, such as the professor of political science at University of California, in Berkeley, John Zysmam, prefer the term “platform economy”. However, the term “surveillance capitalism”, as conceived by the American philosopher and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, from the point of view of a political reading of reality, seems to express much better the type of sociability that is emerging. According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism emerged around 2001 as a result of the financial crisis that hit the dot-com giants, when Google faced a loss of investor confidence and its leaders were pressured to exploit the nebulous advertising market. From then on, user behavioral data became a valuable asset in the world of so-called Big Techs, today led by Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet and Tesla.

As in the past, the same “survival of the fittest” dynamic that drove merchant capitalism of the late XNUMXth century, surveillance capitalism, according to Zuboff, “is a human creation. It lives in history, not technological inevitability. It was created and crafted through trial and error at Google, much like the Ford Motor Company discovered the new economics of mass production or General Motors discovered the logic of managerial capitalism.” In this sense, the expression “surveillance” here does not constitute the centrality of capitalism from an economic point of view, but from a political and social point of view. It represents the way in which capital is starting to operate to maintain control and domination over societies.

In this surveillance capitalism, the commodity, par excellence, will be time itself, an article that humans (only the minority that can effectively participate in the market economy) will have more and more in abundance in a world whose work will be progressively carried out by algorithms. In this new context, the two segments that will tend to dominate the world economy, as we can see today, will be insurance and entertainment, the two refuges where the human animal will try to protect itself and distract itself from the horrors of the growing dystopia. that this new capitalism is producing.

By proposing that capitalism has been reinventing itself as a surveillance system, Zuboff is highlighting not only the economic, but also the political logic behind the platform market that “claims private human experience as a source of free raw material, subordinated to the dynamics of market and reborn as behavioral data”. Asian countries such as China took the lead in mastering this new form of state power, not least because it already had a historical tradition and culture adapted to more authoritarian social relations. However, Zuboff warns that “if we destroy democracy, all that is left is this kind of computational governance, which is a new form of absolutism”. That is why surveillance has gradually become the new engine of the world patriarchal order, tending to destroy democratic regimes and take the place of the market democracy that prevailed for five hundred years.

Unlike previous versions of capital reproduction, the greatest impact of surveillance capitalism for the future of humanity resides in the “replacement of politics by computation”. As a result, Zuboff identified it as a surveillance metabolism, since electromagnetic pulses are gradually dispensing with the Hobessian State, just as market democracy had dispensed with medieval absolutism. And it is here that, as Attali had already predicted twenty years ago, “the most profound revolution that awaits us in the next half century” is located. If we continue on this path, Attali warns that the vigilante tools will tend to be “the substitute object of the State” and the market laissez-faire, by nature a worshiper of the law of the strongest, will reign supreme and, consequently, “the apology of the individual, of individualism, will make the ego, the I, the absolute values” of this new reality.

As the flow of history indicates, just as it happened with the Holy Roman Empire, which succumbed only after a thousand years of hegemony (800-1806), capitalism will one day decline, however, according to what the platforms have been promising, the State -nation will perish long before. From the 1980s onwards, an inflection began that points in this direction: the decline of democratic regimes, driven by algorithms, in which, almost imperceptibly, the market completely absorbed the State.

Humanity watches inertly the emergence of a new form of totalitarianism, this time, only market, controlled by those who control the algorithms. It is subordination to the new rising hegemony of “surveillance”. In this perspective, magnetic pulses represent today the newest tool for modeling reality and, probably, the last form of expression of patriarchal culture, after millennia of prevalence, given that the many phenomena and crises combined, of planetary reach, that are ongoing, for better or for worse, point in that direction.

*Antonio Sales Rios Neto, a federal civil servant, is a writer and political and cultural activist.

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