Reviewed by Scott Timcke
Completed ‘under the difficult conditions created by the pandemic’ (xiii) the 2020 edition of the Socialist Register seeks to ‘analyze the nature of digital capitalism and its contradictions’ (ix), doing so ‘within the history of technological change’ (x). In selecting this topic, the late Leo Panitch and Greg Albo’s goal was to highlight the extent to which ‘digital technology has become integral to capitalist market dystopia’ (ix), a necessary task given the prevalence of ‘cyber-utopian’ (ix) and ‘techno determinist’ (x) thought in the public and private realms. This kind of ‘celebrant’ ideology, which Robert McChesney (2013) outlined so well recently, provides a social license for centi-billionaires like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos to continue to have a disproportionate say in directing investments, allocating resources and setting the terms of production. In laying out this agenda, Panitch and Albo rightly place greater emphasis on ‘capitalism’ than the adjectival ‘digital’, effectively suggesting that regardless of the various affordances platforms, algorithms and code may provide, in the first instance they are shaped by the imperatives of capital. Theirs is a welcome addition of materialist and class analysis to the general literature within Science and Technology Studies through demonstrating how digitalization is used to expand and deepen capitalist social relations.
All the essays have merit, offering numerous useful theoretical and programmatic insights in turn making the collection more than the sums of its parts. Still, three essays are worth mentioning in particular. Among the early theorists of digital capitalism like Dan Schiller (1999), and with several previous contributions appearing in past editions of the Socialist Register, Ursula Huws contextualises the differences between telecommuting professionals and ‘essential’ workers in hospitals, logistics and warehousing sectors within the broader reconfiguration in global labour markets that has been occurring in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. By enrolling ‘near-universal access to digital technologies’ (1) by in large professionals could isolate and work at home during the pandemic, in doing so taking on different risk profiles compared to workers who were required to remain on hand and on-site during lockdowns. Typically, in the Global North, these risk profiles somewhat overlap with racial status, with racial minorities disproportionately bearing greater exposure to Covid-19. Taking the larger view, both sets of workers face great risk in the years ahead. This is because ‘platform work’ and telecommuting has provided a game-plan for companies wishing to ‘casualize or downsize’ (5) their labour force in the wake of the pandemic. In this respect, Huws links the ‘breaking effects’ in labour markets with ‘acceleratory effects’ (5) of financial markets which push for labour being at the beck and call, but off the company books. And when on-site, workers are subject to remote management surveillance practices that characterise ‘logged labour’ (Huws 2016). These items have aided the steady concentration of capital.
Complementing Huws’ reconfiguration of labour markets and capital, Bryan Palmer’s essay addresses ‘reconfigurations of time and how it is conceived’. The jarring of ‘capitalist temporality’ (14) during the pandemic had several effects, one of which was the evaporation of clear ideas of ‘working time’. Certainly, technologies like emails and cellphones had contributed to this development in the recent past, same too with the demands of coordinating work in transnational corporations. Still, with professionals telecommuting, there is additional meaning to Dallas Smythe’s adage that ‘all time is work time’. But Palmer also has a larger point about the role of primitive accumulation in the ‘the reconstruction of exploitation’ (32), suggesting that the evaporation of time boundaries around work speak to how digitization aids the sheer looting of workers time while, as Huws notes, their proper time at work (and hence remuneration) shrinks.
Grace Blakley’s contribution addresses the ‘tendency towards centralization’ (100). Through micro-managing the extraction of surplus value, dispossession and relatively low production costs, digital technology companies are extremely profitable. ‘They collect an extremely valuable commodity produced by their users – data’, Blakley writes, while ‘network effects to establish near total market dominance’ (101). The size, position and power that these firms have gives them an effective monopsony power over workers and monopoly power to gain access to data, attention and the audience commodity. The entire process, Blakley notes, is aided and abetted by ‘specialist financial institutions’ (102) themselves subject to Huws’ ‘acceleratory effects.’ Consequently, Derek Hrynyshyn explains that activists ought to be clear-eyed about the limitations of regulatory interventions. While there is certainly utility in digital media and tech reform, antitrust legislation and similar policy courses are insufficient for large-scale social transformations that characterize Marxist aspirations. As Hrynyshyn writes, the proper target is a new mode of production, with a new property rights regime, appropriate jurisprudence, general decommodification and a fair sharing of goods. These are the attributes of what Christoph Hermann’s calls a ‘needs-based economy’ (277).
In drawing attention to the trifecta of rentiership, looting and concentration, the collection outlines paths other than simple utopianism or scepticism, showing instead how these stances could be superseded by critical approaches grounded in maximising the potential of digital technologies as but one part of the broader project of revitalizing social life. If there is one element that is somewhat overlooked in the collection it is how US capitalism captured the internet. Where once it was a ‘free software community,’ one with an emerging public property rights regime that could permit everyone to ‘homestead on the electronic frontier,’ the last several decades have seen this space enclosed and subject to control by capital. This is evident in digital rights management and the various struggles over privacy, torrents and other streaming sites. Co-currently, there have been attempts to channel information by making it pass primarily through platforms like Facebook and Google, or have products primarily sold via Amazon. Not only is this an enclosure of this vast human potential, but this is akin to the enclosures that preceded the rise of industrialism.
Finally, there is also some benefit considering some of the conjectures in Panitch and Albo’s opening essay. Their essay does much to try to signal that the pandemic has made the precepts of neoliberal era open to revision and renegotiation. Managing capitalism’s contradictions has recently seen ‘massive social expenditures’ (ix), actions outside the Overton window just a few years before. Currently there is much hype and enthusiasm in the US liberal press over ‘Bidenomics’ (cf. Smith 2021). Citing big public spending in the US, for example, Chris Hughes (2021) has proclaimed that ‘we are witnessing the most profound realignment in American political economy in nearly forty years.’ Furthermore, he adds, ‘we went from living in a country where markets couldn’t be touched to one where Americans believe the state has an important role in managing them to create prosperity.’ This is a development that Hughes welcomes. That said, it is not the case the Anglo-American ruling parties have taken the turn embodied by Sanders and Corbyn (these parties have hardly taken the ‘Warren turn!’); rather, capitalists have realised that the neoliberal governance is ill-suited to present conditions which combine intense and broad dissatisfactions with a looming crisis of effective demand.
Strong declaratives about ‘managed markets’ might be overselling the apparent change in the relationship between state and market, but there is a sense in that there may be a new unity under construction. Given the various reconfigurations to which Huws, Palmer and Blakley point, it is almost certain that digital technology will be a key constitutive form in that unity. If so, there is value in heeding some of Stuart Hall’s wisdom since, following the intense social struggles in the 1960s, he was an early observer of ‘a new political project on the right’ (Hall 1988: 136) which sought to consolidate its close victory from those struggles. As Hall wrote, ‘those transformations [changed] the political terrain of struggle before our very eyes, we think the differences don’t have any real effect on anything. It still feels more ‘left-wing’ to say the old ruling class politics goes on in the same old way’ (Ibid: 163). Hall’s refusal of the ‘easy transfer of generalisations’ from one era to another made him especially sensitive to the mechanics of neoliberalism, better positioning generations of scholars who followed to provide a critical analysis of the subsequent conjunctures and articulations. I mention this because if Panitch and Albo are correct about a slight revision in Western political economy, then the scholars in the collection exemplify the kind of sensitivity required to trace that reformation.
10 May 2021
- 1988 The Hard Road to Renewal London: Verso.
- 2021 The Free Market is Dead: What Will Replace It Time April 26, 2021 https://time.com/5956255/free-market-is-dead/
- 2016 Logged labour: a new paradigm of work organisation? Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation 10(1): 7-26.
- 2013 Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy New York: New Press.
- 1999 Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- 2021 Bidenomics, explained April 4, 2021 https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/bidenomics-explained