Neo-Feudalism and Pandemic Shock Doctrine
I ‘sign-in’ to my phone with my fingerprint. My son’s new phone offers “face recognition” which he is amazed by. Amazon sells a product called Echo, which you install into your home so it can spy on you. The Echo connects to Alexa which learns your habits needs and desires. Your job is to train Alexa to know what you want to consume. Alexa will harvest all this information about you and feed it into the matrix of what it knows about everybody. This is now completely normal.
As James Bridle reports in his review of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff:
“News updates ping your phone, with your daily decision whether to click on them or not carefully monitored, and parameters adjusted accordingly. How far and where your morning run takes you, the conditions of your commute, the contents of your text messages, the words you speak in your own home and your actions beneath all-seeing cameras, the contents of your shopping basket, your impulse purchases, your speculative searches and choices of dates and mates – all recorded, rendered as data, processed, analysed, bought, bundled and resold like sub-prime mortgages. The litany of appropriated experiences is repeated so often and so extensively that we become numb, forgetting that this is not some dystopian imagining of the future, but the present.”
You know all this.
In the work of writers like McKenzie Wark (Capital is Dead, Is This Something Worse?) Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget), and Albena Azmanova’ (Capitalism on Edge) the outline of a new theory emerges that capitalism is transforming itself into … something worse. As your timelines are filled with police violence, malignant politics and global pandemic, this probably isn’t what you’re needing to hear right now, so sorry about that. The term these writers are using is “Neo-Feudalism” where we can observe the emergence of a society featuring peasants and lords of the internet, extreme inequality and precarity.
Jaron Lanier describes the division between “a minuscule number of “computing cloud overlords”, who spy on traffic to sell ads, and a vast majority of “digital serfs” uploading content for free, while Wark argues that information has empowered a new kind of ruling class:
“Sure, there is still a landlord class that owns the land under your feet and a capitalist class that owns the factories, but maybe now there’s another kind of ruling class as well one that owns neither of these things but instead owns the vector along which information is gathered and used”.
But there’s another way we have become commoditised beyond our role as data points for harvesting. We are “becoming peasants” with our very homes and cars becoming things to sell (constantly). If we are online all the time we are also in a commercial world constantly. We are forever shopping in endless loops of consumption.
Jodi Dean, in the LA Review of Books explains:
“Feudal relations are characterized by a fundamental inequality that enables the direct exploitation of peasants by lords. Perry Anderson describes the exploitative monopolies such as watermills that were controlled by the lord; peasants were obliged to have their grain ground at their lord’s mill, a service for which they had to pay. So not only did peasants occupy and till land that they did not own, but they dwelled under conditions where the feudal lord was, as Marx says, “the manager and master of the process of production and of the entire process of social life.” Unlike the capitalist whose profit rests on the surplus value generated by waged workers through the production of commodities, the lord extracts value through monopoly, coercion, and rent.
Digital platforms are the new watermills, their billionaire owners the new lords, and their thousands of workers and billions of users the new peasants. Technology companies employ a relatively small percentage of the workforce, but their effects have been tremendous, remaking entire industries around the acquisition, mining, and deployment of data. The smaller workforces are indicative of digital technology’s neofeudalizing tendency. Capital accumulation occurs less through commodity production and wage labor than through services, rents, licenses, fees, work done for free (often under the masquerade of participation), and data treated as a natural resource. Positioning themselves as intermediaries, platforms constitute grounds for user activities, conditions of possibility for interactions to occur. Google makes it possible to find information in an impossibly dense and changing information environment. Amazon lets us easily locate items, compare prices, and make purchases from established as well as unknown vendors. Uber enables strangers to share rides. Airbnb does the same for houses and apartments. All are enabled by an immense generation and circulation of data. Platforms don’t just rely on data, they produce more of it. The more people use platforms, the more effective, and powerful these platforms become, ultimately transforming the larger environment of which they are a part.
Platforms are doubly extractive. Unlike the water mill peasants had no choice but to use, platforms not only position themselves so that their use is basically necessary (like banks, credit cards, phones, and roads) but that their use generates data for their owners. Users not only pay for the service but the platform collects the data generated by the use of the service. The cloud platform extracts rents and data, like land squared. The most extreme examples are Uber and Airbnb, which extract rent without property by relying on an outsourced workforce responsible for its own maintenance, training, and means of work. One’s car isn’t for personal transport. It’s for making money. One’s apartment isn’t a place to live; it’s something to rent out. Items of consumption are reconfigured as means of accumulation as personal property becomes an instrument for the capital and data accumulation of the lords of platform, Uber and Airbnb. This tendency toward becoming-peasant, that is, to becoming one who owns means of production but whose labor increases the capital of the platform owner, is neofeudal.”
Wark declares her previous text (the highly influential Hacker Manifesto) to be in the “crypto-Marxist” tradition, which includes writers like Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, and Deleuze and Guattari.
The text of the Hacker Manifesto mirrors and reflects both in style and content the Communist Manifesto but also the Debord’s Situationist Manifesto:
39. Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains. Information is the potential of potential. When unfettered it releases the latent capacities of all things and people, objects and subjects. Information is indeed the very potential for there to be objects and subjects. It is the medium in which objects and subjects actually come into existence, and is the medium in which their virtuality resides. When information is not free, then the class that owns or controls it turns its capacity toward its own interest and away from its own inherent virtuality.
40. Information has nothing to do with communication, or with media. “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present.” Information is precisely this resistance, this friction. At the urgings of the vectoralist class, the state recognises as property any communication, any media product with some minimal degree of difference recognisable in commodity exchange. Where communication merely requires the repetition of this commodified difference, information is the production of the difference of difference.
According to Vince Carducci “It takes Marx as “source-code,” something to be hacked and made more efficient. (To be sure, Marx’s own axioms of private property and alienated labor as the roots of capitalist exploitation are themselves hacked from Rousseau’s “Second Discourse” on the origins of inequality among humankind.) In true hacker style, the text of A Hacker Manifesto has been revised and re-written time and again, having appeared in different forms on various listservs and webzines over the years. This iteration is organized alphabetically by keyword and its prose is tuned tight as a drum. (That’s no guarantee it’s the final version, of course.)”
But her new work Capital is Dead, Is This Something Worse? takes us in a new direction. If it less playful and experimental it is more radical.
We should, as Wark implores us, “at least entertain the thought experiment that this is no longer capitalism at all. Curiously, the attempt to make this thought experiment meets with strong resistance. Even critical theory seems very emotionally attached to the notion that capitalism still goes on, and on.”
The right and left are unified in a belief that capitalism is eternal. This, she argues is seen in the endless procession of modifiers to describe our condition, the following ‘capitalisms’ exist: necro, platform, surveillance, late, hyper, disaster, neuro, post-fordist, neoliberal, even post-capitalism. Wark suggests that the left is obsessed with and seeks comfort from an eternal mutating capitalism to the detriment of observing actual changes in our economy and our social structures.
If this all sounds dark, and it surely is, there is light, sort of, at the end of the tunnel.
As Wark says in Capital is Dead: “So the bad news is: this is not capitalism anymore, it’s something worse. And the good news is: Capital is not eternal, and even if this mode of production is worse, it is not forever. There could be others. That’s the struggle today. Ok, so that’s not particularly good news. But other is also this: and end to left-melancholia, that eternal sadness about eternal capitalism.”
Endless Loops of Consumption Endless Loops of Catastrophism
But what has this got to do with the pandemic?
It’s in this context that we need to understand some of the post-covid cultures being described as solutions by tech giants American corporations and political leaders. This is what Naomi Klein describes as ” something resembling a coherent pandemic shock doctrine”
Describing New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday 6 May she looks out at who has been convened. There was the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a panel to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality. Schmidt – we’re told holds more than $5.3bn in shares of Alphabet (Google’s parent company).
Cuomo, Klein notes has an array of billionaire partnerships (including one with Michael Bloomberg for testing and tracing), and New York state is being positioned as the gleaming showroom for their grim future. As the left and progressive forces have been dreaming of possible post-covid futures, so too have the alliance of tech giants and forces of neo-feudalism.
Klein writes: “Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.
Anuja Sonalker, the CEO of Steer Tech, a Maryland-based company selling self-parking technology, recently summed up the new virus-personalised pitch. “There has been a distinct warming up to humanless, contactless technology,” she said. “Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”
Read the full, terrifying long read here (How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic).
Responses to this new dystopia vary.
As Jodi Dean writes (Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?):
“…neofeudalism brings with it the insecurity and anxiety of an overwhelming sense of catastrophe. There is good reason to feel insecure. The catastrophe of capitalist expropriation of the social surplus in the setting of a grossly unequal and warming planet is real.”
She continues contrasting the role of tech giants and lords with the masses:
“For those on the other side of the neofeudal divide, anxiety and insecurity are addressed less by ideology than they are by opioids, alcohol, and food, anything to dull the pain of hopeless, mindless, endless drudgery.”
All of this is being accelerated by the pandemic, but so too is our understanding of our predicament. This is not an argument against technology, it is an argument that the lines of where power lie are being exposed more clearly than before.