Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism
Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2012. 230pp., £29.95 pb
Reviewed by Mark Bergfeld
Mark Bergfeld is a socialist activist and writer. He was a leading participant in the UK student movement in 2010. His writings can be found at www.mdbergfeld.com. He tweets @mdbergfeld
In his latest book, Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism, Luis Suarez-Villa deals with a new phase of capitalism and provides some tentative answers about where the system is heading. The essayistic form of the book underlines the open and flexible content of his provocative argument. While never explicit Suarez-Villa’s book forms part of the wider debates on “the network society”, “knowledge economy” and “cognitive capitalism”.
When Marx jotted “all that is solid melts into air” into the Communist Manifesto he described capitalism’s creative powers as well as the destruction it would wreak. This dialectical understanding of technological innovation and increased centralisation of capital would provide a method to analyse an ever-changing life-world. Only a generation later, Marx’s followers such as Bebel and Kautksy would fall into ‘progressism’ and a version of techno-utopianism vis-à-vis economic determinism. Today, techno-utopianism is fashionable once again. This makes Suarez-Villa’s work all the more important.
Grasping reality at its root is a difficult task. Suarez-Villa does not shy away from it. In doing so, he incites the reader to rethink Marx’s labour theory of value and the dialectical relationship of technology and capitalism. How has capitalism changed according to Suarez-Villa? The answer lies in three interdependent fields: technology, creativity and corporations.
Suarez writes that technocapitalism is "a new form of capitalism that is heavily grounded on corporate power and its exploitation of technological creativity" (3). This form of corporate power commodifies all our life-spheres and in particular people’s individual creativity. According to Marx, the crisis-ridden system would continuously seek to increase the rate of exploitation by either increasing the absolute rate of surplus value (i.e. making workers work longer and harder or paying them less for an hour of work). On the other hand, Marx also argued that capitalists would have to increase the relative rate of surplus value by introducing new machines and placing new non-commodified areas such as ‘creativity’ under the system of generalised commodity production.
Suarez-Villa grapples with the fact that ‘creativity’ has been absorbed into commodity production. However, he appears to throw the baby out with the bathwater by equating the exploitation of ‘creativity’ to the exploitation of labour-power. He finds proof of this in the fact that corporations pour ever greater amounts of their resources into research and development (R&D) rather than into raw materials and labour-power. Thus, the struggle over creativity constitutes the prime arena of struggle at this current conjuncture.
Creativity is "an intangible human quality, […] the most precious resource of this new incarnation of capitalism." (3) This renders Marx's theory of labour value obsolete. Suarez-Villa believes that it is no longer the case that the system is driven by the exploitation of labour-power and capital accumulation. Capitalism’s key contradiction between capital and labour is sublimated. The new fault line is that creativity is commodified and its results (not easily quantifiable) are expropriated by undemocratic corporations.
How does Suarez-Villa justify this claim? He ascribes 'social value' to creativity. Social value transcends the dual character of the commodity which Marx ascribes to it. Instead of 'use value' and 'exchange value', creativity embodies social value per se. In technocapitalist societies, use means utility. Only by ascribing it a social character can one identify creativity's intangible character. But this formulation also bears the problem that it treats manual and mental labour as distinct from one another. It does not acknowledge that every manual act is preceded by a mental task. In other words, mental and manual labour cannot just be separated in such a way. Creativity is put down on paper or implemented in practice. Intangible creativity results in tangible results. Whether capitalism can quantify or commodify these is another question.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) in UK Universities quantifies research outputs to the dismay of many academics. Capitalism has found many ways to quantify creativity. Suarez-Villa poignantly writes "corporatism is primarily in charge of the commodification of creativity and cannot hope to reproduce it on its own because of the fundamentally social character of this resource. Only society can reproduce creativity effectively. This split between commodification (a corporate function) and reproduction (a social function) is a distinctive feature of the new era." (15)
Large parts of this argument will fall on deaf ears with Marxists. While his analysis remains limited in its achievements he raises pertinent questions. He might not have the answers but it can allow the kind of discussions which might arrive at them. In the context of debates amongst Autonomist-Marxists and the anti-capitalist left on the role of the “general intellect” Suarez-Villa adds some much-needed food for thought.
His concept of the “experimentalist corporation” is one of the strongest points in the book. As creativity requires extensive mediation by society it can no longer be controlled by a company internally. Suarez-Villa writes that it is "necessary for the experimentalist corporation to be more 'external' than any of its predecessors" (15). What does he mean? Experimentalism has replaced accumulation as the motor of the system. This is underlined when Suarez-Villa says "Experimentalism is the driving force of technocapitalism" (8). This marks a fundamental shift in capitalism. Experimentalism and R&D have become the over-determined activity of technocapitalism. The role of 'experimentalism' is the “technological and scientific inquiry whose overarching objective for being is commercial. It therefore involves experimentation for the sake of corporate power and profit, as opposed to experimentation for its own sake or for the sake of attaining new knowledge” (118).
Concrete examples of this practice can be found in a number of industries and corporations involved in biotechnology, nanotechnology, bioinformatics, software design, genomics, synthetic bioengineering, molecular computing and biorobotics. More popularised forms of this kind of organisational practice can be found in 3M where workers were (perhaps they still are) allowed to experiment for one and a half hours a day. This allowed one of 3M’s employees to develop the post-it note. At Facebook software engineers get to “play around” and experiment all the time. However it is not only the ‘new’ industries that are subject to this “systematized research regime”. ‘Old’ industries are infected with this “new ethos” as well. For example, the auto-industry has to adapt to the organisational practices of the new technocapitalist corporation. To what extent that is true remains an open question. However, capitalism’s history has always displayed a struggle at the top of society between the ‘old’ and the ‘emergent’.
While on the surface Suarez-Villa’s observations appear to be liberatory and contain emancipatory aspects for most workers, Suarez-Villa correctly focuses on the underlying dynamics which sustain this experimentalism. At points his account reads like dystopian science fiction with the corporation and its systematized research regime having absorbed all areas of life. However, he does acknowledge that technocapitalism still constitutes an arena of struggle. It is undecided whether creativity and technology will be put at the service of humans, or continue to serve corporations. His final remarks are quite pessimistic insofar as Suarez-Villa believes that today's institutions of democracy do not pose much of a counterweight to these transnationally operating corporations. His remedy of prescribing more accountability seems like a drop of water on a hot stone.
At a philosophic level, it remains under-theorised whether humans are still alienated from their labour-process and product in technocapitalism. How does alienation manifest itself under technocapitalism? This fundamental omission would facilitate a deeper philosophical understanding of his project for liberation. One of his proposed solutions lies in considering the new innovations of technocapitalism as a public resource. He calls upon his readers to reclaim the commons from the technocapitalist oligopolies. Organisations such as Anonymous or the Pirate Party formulate similar propositions. Without any clear strategy of how to change the balance of forces in the respective societies these demands will unfortunately be short-lived. Even if implemented alienated labour would persist.
Suarez-Villa’s greatest achievement is how he navigates beyond the crude cyber-utopianism of Clay Shirky or the technophobia of Eugene Morozov. Instead he embraces technological change while pointing towards its dark underbelly. This also holds true for his view on ‘social networks’. He ascribes to 'social networks' an immense creative potential and argues they provide the basis for human liberation. Yet, these same networks create new kinds of hierarchies and control mechanisms which industrial capitalism could have only dreamt of. He writes: "Their extent, structure, and access are largely articulated by those who participate in them. Such participation can become a means to dominate other network participants or it can become a vehicle to collapse hierarchies, oligarchies, and exploitive controls." (11)
Under capitalism, science and technology do not develop apart from society. Technological innovations are shaped by capitalism's needs. The technologies and networks of technocapitalism are not neutral. They are the products of existing capitalist social relations. Inasmuch as these present themselves to be egalitarian they mask the continuation of inequality and capitalist dominance. One thing is certain, the technological advances made under (techno-)capitalism are dripping in blood. In order to use humanity’s creative potentials to the fullest we would require an unprecedented break which would transform the ways technologies have been used in the course of the last 150 years. Suarez-Villa’s book makes a unique contribution of some of today’s prescient fault lines.
2 September 2013