Techno-feudalism – a defense

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Morozov misrepresents the discussion of sovereignty in contemporary debates on feudalism and neo-feudalization

The critique of techno-feudal reason, made by Evgeny Morozov, targets the growing list of thinkers who have seen homologies between feudalism and current trends in the capitalist system – prolonged stagnation, upward redistribution of income by political means, a digital sector where a few “barons” benefit from a mass of users “linked” to their algorithmic domains and the growth of a service or server industry.

Among the alleged proponents of the “feudal thesis” are Yanis Varoufakis, Mariana Mazzucato, Robert Kuttner, Michael Hudson and myself. Morozov dismisses the feudalism analogy by characterizing it as stemming from a meme-hungry pursuit of intellectual attention and even a failure to understand digital capitalism. he refuses the insight about the possibility that this system may be turning into something that can no longer be adequately described as capitalism. Was he right?

In defining what capitalism consists of, Morozov contrasts certain conceptualizations of Marxists such as Robert Brenner with that of the main theorist of the world-system, Immanuel Wallerstein. As he notes, Marxists generally conceive of the process of surplus extraction under feudalism as an “expropriation” driven by coercive or extra-economic political means: lords expropriate the production of peasants over whom they exercise sovereign political and legal power.

Capitalism, on the other hand, depends on “exploitation” – extraction of surplus by purely economic means: nominally free workers, deprived of the means of subsistence, are forced to sell their labor power for a lowered wage in order to survive in a money economy. . For Wallerstein, in addition, capitalism also evolves centrally through processes of expropriation of the periphery by the center. Morozov points to this ongoing role of “extra-economic coercion” as the main difference between what happens in these two worlds.

Morozov sides with Wallerstein, arguing that "dispossession and expropriation have been constitutive of accumulation throughout history". But this dissolution of the difference between feudalism and capitalism – based on the notion of eternal expropriation – does not pay attention to changes in the forms of exploitation. It naturalizes capitalism in a way that was effectively criticized by Ellen M. Wood in The Origin of Capitalism (2017), thus abandoning any effort to recognize and qualify the current change.

Furthermore, as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg emphasized, extra-economic coercion is not simply replaced by exploitation, but accompanies it in the process of accumulation; capital overlaps, incorporates and uses previous social forms. Marx judged coercion on labor as not unique to capitalism. Pre-capitalist economic formations also forced labor to produce a surplus, which was expropriated by the lord or lord. But capitalism changes the form of this compulsion: what was a direct and personal form of domination becomes impersonal; becomes mediated by market forces in such a way that the economic is separated from the political.

We floorplans, Marx discusses an originary unit of production: in the old communal form, the producers form a community of owners, who assume that the land is there for them to work for a living. They produce for themselves and their community through creative and destructive processes. The increase in population implies that the wilderness needs to be cleared and the land cultivated. The need for land drives conquest and colonization. The emergence of cities, craftsmanship and ownership of the instruments of work provoked a weakening, a separation, in the community. Community begins to appear no longer as a result of a natural and spontaneous relationship mediated by work, but as a product of work.

Capitalism presupposes that the whole has dissolved into parts. The owner of the land no longer works and those who work the land no longer own it. Artisans also no longer possess the instruments of work. It's the tools that employ them now. Everything that was present in the original unit is still there, but in a different form. Under this new order, the separate conditions of production are united through the mediation of the market. Contrary to Morozov's assumption of a continuous linear history, the floorplans illuminate the processes by which continuous reproduction can generate fundamental change.

Is there evidence of a change in the elements that constitute contemporary capitalism? A look at Uber – both the company and the ride-sharing app – helps shed light on the problem. First, the labor relationship.

Are Uber drivers contractors or independent employees? On the one hand, the company describes its technological apparatus as a tool to help people access “flexible earning opportunities”, that is, earn extra money driving in your spare time. Drivers are independent entrepreneurs who use the Uber app to provide a “ride” to those in need and thus earn some money. Uber connects bidders and demanders and charges a fee for the service.

On the other hand, court decisions and workers' organizations argue that Uber drivers are employees. In February 2021, a London labor court rejected Uber's claim that its drivers were independent contractors, noting that the sharing company controlled their working conditions and pay. Drivers have no say in negotiating their contracts. Uber controls the information it receives and monitors rider fees, penalizing riders if they don't meet its standards.

For some analysts, the Uber system exemplifies the exploitation mode by algorithmic management, a digitally turbocharged Taylorism. For others, it's a modern version of the city's on-demand service provider, which is backed by billions in venture capital. In After the gig (2020), economic sociologist Juliet Schor describes the new online work platforms as a modern recreation of an economic form based on serfdom.

At first glance, these interpretations seem to contradict each other: are platforms like Uber manifestations of unbridled capitalism or a new feudal servitude? For defenders of employment as a social condition, such drivers must be considered as employees with legally regulated conditions, which were conquered by decades of struggle by the working class. Proponents of the “independent contractor” social status – including Uber drivers – do not see employee status as a particularly liberating situation. Contingent workers often say they value their freedom to set their own hours, even if they hate the way platforms handle apps. On the other hand, the Uber capitalists no longer want to invest in means of production and buy labor power for certain periods.

The report of floorplans of the separation that capitalism presupposes provides a way to resolve this binary inversion involving servitude and “freedom”. Marx describes the mass of living labor released onto the market as “free in a double sense, free from the old relations of dependency, slavery and servitude and, secondly, free from all belongings and possessions, from objective and material forms of being, free from all property”. From this perspective, it makes sense to think of Uber drivers as “free” hires – not for what they gain in flexibility, but for what they lose: they are “liberated” from workers' rights to guaranteed hours, paid leave, health benefits, and so on. against.

They are also “freed”, in a sense, from the relation of ownership. In the discussion about transport in the Theories of surplus value, Marx observes that “the relationship between buyer and seller of this service has nothing to do with the relation of the productive worker to capital”. The buyer of the “taxi” service is not employing the driver, not putting him to work, to accumulate capital. The working instrument, the car, ostensibly belongs to the driver – just as the pre-capitalist craftsman owned his tools.

And yet, something changes in the driver's relationship with his car: from a consumption item – something bought with his own “consumption fund”, such as the salary he received for his work – the car now becomes a means of capital accumulation, but not for him, for Uber. Instead of the Uber company paying for and maintaining a fleet of cars, it uses the drivers' vehicles, making their cars employ their owners. Because they are valued by customers, many drivers feel pressured to keep their cars clean and smelling good. The purpose of owning a car now is less for personal pleasure, but for income generation. Thus, it stands out from its owner, as an independent value. The car becomes capital.

The debt that many Uber drivers rack up to buy a car signals this change in shape. Traditional taxi drivers working for one company can move on to other jobs if they are dissatisfied, but Uber drivers are often locked into financial obligations that they have a hard time getting out of. The debt they incurred to acquire “their” cars ties them to the platform.

At the same time, the burden of maintaining the car is transformed into a cost of production, a cost that drivers have to bear. Drivers have to drive to pay for repairs and maintain car payments — which means winning both for Uber and for themselves. The double freedom of drivers – from the status of an employee and from owning a car for leisure – inaugurates a double dependence: dependence on the market and the Uber system to gain access to the market itself. Uber inserts itself between driver and passenger: they cannot meet without its “help”.

The insertion of Uber as an intermediary between buyer and seller is superficially reminiscent of Marx's discussion of how, under the intervention of merchants, independent spinners and weavers are transformed into dependent workers. But the Uber system differs from the merchant in that it is not buying labor power, as the intermediary merchants did.

Morozov's critique of techno-feudalism insists that the new "digital lords" are not "idle rentiers". Taking Google as his prime example, he sees such capitalists as innovators who invest money in research and development and who, as a result of this activity, engage in the production of new commodities.

But the drive to maximize profits can also prevent the reinvestment of surpluses in production, directing them towards destruction. The very laws of capitalism can undermine capitalism, bringing about the worst. Thus, for example, Uber undermines and disrupts the urban transport sector, reducing wages and making it impossible for taxi drivers to earn a living wage. Airbnb has also led to hotel revenue declines and employee layoffs. DoorDash is damaging the restaurant industry in England through its unlicensed and uninspected kitchens that replicate real restaurant menus for delivery.

Working through systems based on computer platforms carries out this type of destruction wherever it happens. As Alexis Madrigal wrote, companies like Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, Doordash and Instacart “turned on workers in local industries – those who do everything, cleaners, dog walkers, dry cleaners, etc. – to the technology- and capital-rich global economy. These people are now submitting to a new intermediary. They know they control the customer relationship, only allowing them to earn a cut of the revenue. If before the earnings of these workers were their own, now there is an intermediary who charges a fee and thus obtains an income based on controlling access to the market.

The separation process that fragmented the original, pre-capitalist production unit reappears here as intermediaries, that is, platforms, are inserted in exchange relations, dismantling markets and destroying sectors. Insertion, the creation of new dependencies based on monopoly power, does not come cheap. Market dominance costs billions, which are raised through venture capital and “private equity”. Wealth accumulation is multiplied through destructive rather than productive investments.

Uber's strategy – which consists of deploying huge amounts of capital to co-opt drivers and initially subsidize riders until the company establishes itself in a city and can then begin to raise fees charged – is not unique. Tactics such as “quick scaling” (blitzscaling) or “lightning growth” (lightning growth) are “biblical” Silicon Valley practices. According to Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and author of the book Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies (2018), it is about “purposefully and intentionally doing things that do not make sense according to traditional business thinking”.

WeWork, which operates in the office rental sector, is another example of rapid scaling. Armed with billions of investment capital from SoftBank's Vision Fund, WeWork tried to dominate such markets by using cash reserves to destroy or buy out competitors, paying big incentives to early tenants, and so on. What makes this market-winning technique seem viable is the huge amount of venture capital chasing outsized gains, especially the kind that can come from a well-publicized IPO. successful.

Many billions are funneled into a robber company tasked with quickly destroying all potential competitors rather than directly competing with them through efficiency improvements. Once competitors are eliminated and regulations are circumvented, the winner can increase pressure on workers and customers. The laws of motion here are not capital's imperatives of market competition and profit maximization. Capital now becomes a weapon of mass conquest and destruction.

Neoliberalism transforms into neofeudalism because it effects a change in social property relations by destroying state “shackles” or institutional constraints on markets – such as employee safety nets, corporate taxes, social welfare provisions, etc. . The enormous stocks of capitalist wealth that accumulate in the hands of a few make them capable of exercising political and economic power. That power protects the holders of capital while intensifying the misery of almost everyone else.

Wealth holders seeking high returns rely on hedge funds, “private equity”, venture capital funds and the like to sniff out high-risk, high-reward activities of the type found in Silicon Valley – destructive platforms that insert themselves into the relations of exchange, rather than in the sphere of production. Today, the industry is no longer able to generate super profits; platforms are becoming indispensable for accessing the market for the purpose of extracting rents, either in new ways or in more promising ways.

Note: the increases in precariousness and anxiety of workers under neoliberalism; note the practices associated with privatization, austerity and the decline of the organized working class; All of this created a base of consumers grateful for more affordable prices on goods alongside a supply of labor always looking for work. Dependent on the market for access to livelihoods, they become dependent on platforms for access to the labor market. If you work and earn, a platform gets its share; if it is consumed, the platform also collects its share.

As new social property relations, new types of intermediaries and new laws of motion emerge, the ongoing extraction processes do not consist in a “return” to historical feudalism, as Morozov refers to it, but in a societal reflection, of in such a way that the processes of employment of surplus capital that, in the past, were directed outwards – through colonialism and imperialism – now turn inwards.

With advances in value production seemingly at a dead end, capital is accumulated and used as a weapon of destruction; its owners are the new lords, all the rest are dependents, servants and proletarianized serfs. If feudalism was characterized by relationships of personal dependence, then neo-feudalism is characterized by abstract and algorithmic dependence on the platforms that mediate our everyday lives.

And what about the role of the state, which Morozov describes as weak or almost non-existent under the old feudal, piecemeal form of sovereignty, but now quite “constitutive” in Silicon Valley's economy? Logically, of course, the state's involvement in the consolidation of an economic sector tells us nothing about its strength or weakness; it could also be the tool of special interests. But Morozov misrepresents the discussion of sovereignty in contemporary debates about feudalism and neo-feudalization.

The key processes here are fragmentation and extra-economic expropriation. Just as feudal lords exploited peasants and had legal authority over them, today large economic actors exercise political power based on terms and conditions they themselves set.

Private commercial interests are displacing public law through confidentiality agreements, non-compete rules, compulsory arbitration and the dismantling of public regulatory agencies, thus creating a fragmented form of “legally sanctioned private jurisprudence”.

With the privatized parceling out of sovereignty, political authority and economic power mingle. The law does not apply to powerful billionaires as they can avoid it. Corporations like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Alphabet are treated by governments as sovereign states. Hugely concentrated wealth has its own constituent power, determining the rules it will follow – or not.

The counter-revolution produced by neoliberalism has consisted of a process of privatization, fragmentation and separation, in the name of a hyper-individual freedom that resembles the “punctual isolation” of the “free” worker sometimes referred to in the Grundrisse.

Today's proletarians are trapped in a new kind of servitude; they are dependent on networks and practices through which rents are extracted at every economic step they take in society. When production is insufficiently profitable for accumulation, capital holders look elsewhere for returns. In the process, they promote a dynamic of separation, they also create new forms of dependency, which require a new name: neofeudalism – here is a denomination that points to all this.

* Jodi Dean is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (USA). She is the author, among other books, of Comrade: an essay on political belonging (boitempo).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the website of New Left Review.


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