How Capitalism Went Digital

Leo Panitch writes on the new volume of Socialist Register, which traces the developments that made digital technology integral to capitalism – and charts a path to an alternative, democratic future.

Preparing the 2021 Socialist Register amidst the accelerating coronavirus pandemic has been a considerable challenge. Our earlier decision that the time was ripe to explore ‘new ways of living’ in the 21st century through two successive volumes of the Register – under the rubric of ‘Beyond Market Dystopia’ for the 56th annual volume, and ‘Beyond Digital Capitalism’ for this 57th volume – was taken long before the greatest health crisis by far in over a century exploded, quite literally on a global scale, through the course of the first half of 2020.

This crisis fully exposed for all to see the severe consequences of longstanding neoliberal state practices beholden to the blinkered competitive individualism of the proponents of pro-market ideology. And it drove them – however belatedly, confusedly and temporarily – to undertake the types of massive social expenditures they had derided only months before. (‘There is such a thing as society,’ Boris Johnson solemnly admonished the ghost of Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street).

But the pandemic also posed a new challenge for socialists, including for us as the editors as well as for all the contributors to this volume who we invited to analyse the nature of digital capitalism and its contradictions. Could we now do this in ways that also captured the significance of the pandemic and what it spoke to in terms of imagining, struggling for, and planning for, new ways of living?

In addressing how far digital technology has become integral to the capitalist market dystopia of the first decades the 21st century we were deliberately seeking to counter so much facile futurist ‘cyber-utopian’ thinking that has proliferated through these decades. The proof of capitalism’s continued dynamism, even in the face of severe global economic crisis, lay in the most successful and most celebrated high-tech corporations of the new information sector which really were restructuring and refashioning not only our ways of communicating but of working and consuming, indeed ways of living.

Yet precisely because this was taking place within the logics of capitalist accumulation and exploitation, and through the reproduction of capitalist social relations, this produced new contradictions and irrationalities. Perhaps none of these was greater than those revealed by the contrast between the investment, planning and preparation that went into the interminable competitive race for ‘more speed’ by way of reducing latency in digital communications by so many milliseconds, on the one hand, and on the other the lack of investment, planning and preparation that underlay the scandalous slowness of the responses to the spreading Covid-19 pandemic around the world.

It is now over two decades since that the Register published in the 1999 volume Ursula Huws’ foundational essay, ‘Material world: the myth of the weightless economy’, whose purpose was to ‘re-embody cyberspace’ by making visible ‘the material components of this virtual world’; and it is exactly twenty years ago that her famous ‘The making of a cybertariat?’ was the lead essay of the 2001 volume, Working Classes, Global Realities. It is thus highly appropriate that her new essay, ‘Reaping the whirlwind: Digitalisation, restructuring, and mobilisation in the Covid crisis’ should also open the current volume.

In addressing the changes sweeping through global labour markets during the pandemic, sharply accelerating existing trends while exposing new contradictions, Huws explores the clear polarisations between those working isolated in their homes through their computers under lockdown conditions, and those ‘who deliver the physical goods and services the home-bound need to survive and care for their bodily needs when they become sick, at great personal risk.’ And ‘in the vacuum left by government incompetence,’ she explores how far ‘the near-universal access to digital technologies that is a prerequisite for the management of both sets of workers also provides them with new ways to communicate and organise.’

Locating today’s digital capitalism within the history of technological change is the remit of the three essays that follow, all carrying forward the Register’s long-standing commitment to rejecting techno-determinist explanations of economic and political developments and focusing instead on the social relations in which new technologies develop and are deployed. Bryan Palmer, beginning with how ‘the conventional divisions of day and night, labour and leisure, private and public’ have collapsed in on one another during the pandemic lockdowns, traces the contested meaning of working time in a sweeping historical survey of centuries of class struggles amidst the massive technological changes unleashed by industrial capitalism.

Larry Lohmann’s strikingly original essay reveals that ‘it makes more strategic sense for the left to approach the striking innovations in automation advanced over the past decade by the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, Microsoft and Apple as a new level of the mechanisation of interpretive work than to acquiesce in mystifying labels such as artificial intelligence (AI).’ Matthew Cole, Hugo Radice and Charles Umney confirm the emergence of what they call ‘a new digital Taylorism’ through an analysis of the impact of computerisation, datafication, platformisation as well as AI in terms of the economic and social consequences of technological change in capitalist societies, and not least through the changes in the vertical division of labour that has always accompanied the increasingly detailed technical division of labour in production in the modern corporation.

All three of these essays revalidate the centrality of working class struggles as socialists try to ‘look beyond techno-determinist and capitalist futures, and seize the virtual as well as the physical means of production.’ Grace Blakeley’s essay begins by noting that during the course of the pandemic the share value of Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Facebook reached 20 per cent of that of the 500 largest US corporations (‘an unparalleled level of market concentration’), which enriched their chief executives by tens of billions of dollars even as the rest of economy collapsed. She then goes on to analyse how such high-tech capital monopolistic, and monopsonistic, power developed over recent decades via the concentration and centralisation of high-tech corporate capital in close conjunction with finance capital as well as the American state.

For his part, Tanner Mirrlees focuses on the great significance of these corporate giants being cultural and political as well as economic powerhouses, ‘interwoven with daily ways of life in myriad forms,’ thereby intensifying the mass media industries’ long engagement in the commodification of life under consumer-capitalism. Yet Mirrlees argues that while this is where the analysis of ‘digital’, ‘communicative’, or ‘platform’ capitalism today ‘needs to begin, this is not where it should end. For something else is happening that was inconceivable for most of the second half of the 20th century, when socialists in the West were largely kept out of the mass media’s one-to-many communications regime. Digital technologies and social media platforms are today being used by socialists for communicating within and against digital capitalism, and for socialism on a remarkably large scale.’

Derek Hrynyshyn takes this further by soberly analysing the severe limits of regulatory reforms against these corporate media giants and then thinking through how socialised platform media, unlike today’s highly centralised public broadcasters, could be decentralised so as to help realise a fully democratic socialism. Mao Mollona surveys the representation of workers in cinema in the course of the transition from film to the digital video medium, ranging broadly from Steve McQueen’s Western Deep in South Africa to Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks in China, to Mollona’s own Steel Lives in Sheffield in contrast with Ken Loach’s latest film, Sorry We Missed You. He concludes that ‘revolutionary cinema is not about specific technologies, aesthetics, or social processes, but emerges from the encounter between specific conditions of production, circulation, and consumption, contingent working class struggles and forms of radical imagination’.

Joan Sangster’s essay reminds us that the experience of an invasive ‘surveillance capitalism’ – which Loach depicts through the construction worker who signs a Faustian pact to become an ‘owner driver franchisee’ parcel delivery driver, (and the consequent ‘slow descent to hell’ for his family) – is in fact nothing new, but has long been the experience of women workers, especially in capitalism’s service sectors. As she puts it, a ‘feminist eye for highly asymmetrical power relations of gender and race and a materialist concern with the “kernel of human relations” at the heart of capitalism, namely the lived experience of exploitation, should guide our exploration of the surveillance of working women’s bodies’. But far from reifying these workers as dehumanised ciphers of capital (which is what Mollona insists Loach’s film leaves us with), Sangster also uncovers their various modes of resistance, focusing specifically on today’s ever more intensified surveillance of the ‘aesthetic labour’ of flight attendants and retail workers.

The latest Register then turns to a series of essays, by Jerónimo Montero Bressán, Sean Sweeney and John Treat, Ben Selwyn, Pat and Hugh Armstrong, and Pritha and Pratyush Chandra respectively, which, examine today’s proof of market dystopia amidst the pandemic in such facets of everyday life as clothing, transit, food, eldercare and health. These remarkable essays go on to propose how to organise alternative ways of living in each of these areas, not least, as Sweeney and Treat conclude, by ‘adapting technological change in ways consistent with achieving our socialist goals.’

This is followed by Christoph Hermann’s visionary essay on ‘Life after the Pandemic’: insofar as ‘the global pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus, more than any previous crisis, has demonstrated the difference between production for profit and provision for need,’ the case is powerfully made here for a general strategy aimed at the full decommodification of society. And in light of what the economic planning to realise such a ‘needs-based economy’ would entail, the essay that follows by Robin Hahnel – the most consistent advocate of planning versus markets for the last four decades – elaborates further on the participatory structures that will be so crucial for democratic socialist economic planning.

Finally, the 2021 Register concludes with Greg Albo’s comprehensive examination of the extensive literature on ‘postcapitalism’, demonstrating in these writings the persistent tendencies of technological determinism and conventional notions of a mixed economy of private and public goods. While revealing as well in this literature a proliferation of political hedges and qualifications around the need for class struggles, explicitly oriented to finding an exit from capitalist value production, the essay shows how important it is for socialists to offer signposts rather than detours to a democratic socialist future.

As digital technology became integral to the capitalist market dystopia of the first decades of the 21st century, it not only refashioned our ways of communicating but of working and consuming, indeed ways of living. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic revealed not only the lack of investment, planning and preparation that underlay the scandalous slowness of the responses by states around the world, but also grotesque class and racial inequalities as it coursed its way through the population, the owners of high-tech corporations were enriched by tens of billions of dollars. Rejecting both technological determinism and facile ‘cyber-utopian’ thinking, the latest volume of the Socialist Register addresses how to imagine, struggle for, and plan for, new democratic socialist ways of living after the pandemic. We hope you’ll join us at its launch this Saturday.

The digital launch of the 2021 Socialist Register takes place this Saturday at 4pm UK time, supported by Red Pepper and Tribune. You can register today at this link.

About the Author

Leo Panitch is the editor of the Socialist Register and the author and co-author of many books including The Socialist Challenge Today (Merlin), The End of Parliamentary Socialism, and Working Class Politics in Crisis (Verso).