CapitalismLettersThe Left

Is This Still Capitalism?

Is ‘capitalism’ an adequate term to describe the currently dominant mode of production? I think there would be wide consensus, at least at the New School for Social Research, that it is. But is ‘capitalism’ an adequate description for the leading edge of production? I get the sense that, despite their differences, those who want a social science of capitalism (Ott and Milberg), and those who want a critique of it that points toward anti-capitalist alternatives (Boehm and Arruzza), might actually agree that if the currently hegemonic forces continue to prevail, that what is in store for the planet is more capitalism. My question to both would be: what would count as signs of a possible new mode of production?

It seems to me that without some notional sense of both origins but also potential end-points, the concept of ‘capitalism’ risks becoming a bit too totalizing and ahistorical. Either in the mode of critique or the mode of analysis, research will be drawn to what appears continuous in the object of study, and not notice things that point towards transformations into something else.

‘Capitalism’ does indeed seem to be back as an analytic object. In my own little world, the ‘cultural turn’ treated too much interest in the mode of production as vulgar Marxism. So too did what one might call the ‘political turn’. In this year when both Stuart Hall and Ernesto Laclau have passed away, we might want to not forget what was valuable in the cultural and political turns, of which they are avatars. But at the same time, it is worth pointing out that both took the underlying economic form of capitalism to be more or less unchanged. What was interesting and new was at the cultural or political ‘level’ of the social formation.

The return of capitalism as an object comes at a time when both of the possible historical ‘grand narratives’ about its future have receded. Its hard to sustain much faith in bureaucratic socialist planned economies as any kind of alterative. Khrushchev did not bury us with ‘red plenty.’ Also in retreat are various ‘third way’ narratives about how capitalism has passed over into some more sophisticated world where class struggle and ideology are dead. And so, strikingly, the narrative imaginary that is most widely shared is that capitalism just goes on and on, getting worse or better, depending on one’s point of view.

One sign of strain in it as a concept is the frequent addition of modifiers. Periodization has become internal to the concept rather than external. And so we have: neoliberal capitalism, postfordist capitalism, communicative capitalism, biopolitical capitalism, cognitive capitalism, semio-capitalism, not to mention the persistence of the charmingly named ‘late’ capitalism. But is there not a certain failure of imagination in merely adding a qualifier to return strange new observable features of the social formation to the familiar ground of ‘capitalism’? This seems to me to run the risk of not explaining but explaining away the object of both critique and analysis.

There’s another work that a concept can do: to not explain or explain away, but to defamiliarize, to make strange the seemingly self evident. Its in that spirit that, as a thought experiment, I have been trying to find signs that there might be some quite other mode of production nascent in the old capitalist one. What if what was emerging was not more capitalism, not even really a kind of capitalism, but something worse? Something with all of the worst features of capitalism: exploitation, inequality, instability, class polarization, ecological crisis, but also some things not well captured by the analytics or critique of ‘capitalism.’

It might help to define the concept a bit more at this point. By ‘capitalism’ I mean one thing in particular: a social formation with a ruling class which dominates it by the ownership of the means of production. This is course not the only way to define capitalism, but it is the sense in which I mean it here. My question, then is: could there be an emergent ruling class that does not dominate the social formation through the ownership of the means of production, but through some other means?

If one looks, for example, at Fortune 500 companies, its striking how many don’t really own much by way of the means of production in any traditional sense. That icon and relic of Fordism – the Ford motor company – still owns the factories that make its products. As became evident in 2008, Detroit was actually making a big slice of its profits not from making cars but from financial service.

Apple does not really make much of its own products. Neither does Microsoft. A lot of that is contracted out. These are companies that control the production cycle by controlling brands and intellectual property. The drug companies do make things, but it’s a tiny fraction of their value.

What matters in most of these cases is owning the brand, the patents and the copyrights, together with those vectors along which information is gathered, analyzed and made effective. The latter is the path pioneered by Google, whose chief asset is the capacity to gather and analyze data.

Take the biggest of the Fortune 500 companies, Walmart: is it really a company that dominates its sector because it owns more box stores? Or is it more to do with superior logistics? Walmart figured out how to manage distribution on a hitherto unimaginable scale by managing data. Amazon cherry-picked certain kinds of product for which a logistics would work that did not need retail stores.

Perhaps what is going on is a kind of power that has less to do with owning the means of production thereby controlling the value cycle, as in capitalism. Perhaps it is more about owning the means of mediation, thereby controlling the means of production and hence the value cycle. The actual production can be outsourced, and manufacturing firms will have to compete for the privilege of making products with someone else’s intellectual property embedded in it, and sold under some else’s brand.

Certain key parts of production may well be retained, or even acquired. Google is scooping up firms that actually make things in the fields of robotics and the ‘internet of things.’ But the vast extension of so-called intellectual property in the last half century, combined with ever more efficient ways of communicating and managing data, means that a tremendous amount of power can now reside in simply owning the means of mediation.

Why would this be something other than just more capitalism? Let’s have a closer look at what happened to the means of production. Marx was writing in that great era where steam power transformed the forces of production. The worker no longer controlled the tool; the machine controlled the worker. Workers became interchangeable. The physical actions of the worker could be captured and quantified, and as Marx so grandly showed, the worker only received a fraction of the value of their labor.

Is that still how the forces of production work? For a lot of workers, yes. Other power sources have replaced stream, but the worker is still controlled by the machine, and the worker’s labor is controlled and quantified by the machine. Estimates of the number of industrial workers in China vary, but it is at least 80 million. If anything, this is the great era of the industrial forces of production.

Industrialization shifted power away from a landowning class who collected rents on agricultural land from farmers to a class that owned these new means of production and collected profits by exploiting labor. The question would be whether the locus of power might be shifting once again.

What is interesting about more contemporary developments in the forces of production is that they are less about capturing value from physical labor and more about capturing data from any activity whatsoever. It is no longer the case that the only ‘efficient’ signal is the price signal. What if there was a mode of production based not on capturing surplus value but on capturing surplus information?

This might be as much the case with Walmart as with Google. Sure, Walmart captures surplus value from its workers, but it also captures surplus information from its workers, its customers, its suppliers, even from the movement of its goods as well. This information is ‘surplus’ in the sense that for every bit of data given away a whole raft of data and metadata remains proprietary.

Google merely perfects this. All it is really giving away is access to some particular information – which Google did not itself have to produce. What it gets is the aggregate patterns that it can extract from all of that data. And of course these days it has not only all that search data, but basic telemetry on the movements of any human that has in its possession a cellphone running its Adroid OS.

None of this, one should hasten to add, is ‘immaterial’. Can we just admit that this was a terrible (non)concept? Just as it took an incredible amount of infrastructure to seize power from the old landlord class, so too seizing power from a capitalist class to vest it with something else takes a powerful infrastructure, one no longer about making and distributing things but about controlling that making and distributing.

In short, considered in a really vulgar way, in terms of the forces of production, maybe there’s something new going on. Some of the relations of production look familiar. This is still an economy that appears to have markets and prices, firms and profits and so on. But perhaps power is shifting away from owning the means of production, which merely extract surplus value from labor, toward owning the means of mediation, by which a surplus can be extracted from any activity at all.

So far discussion of the Heilbroner center text has oscillated around the old grand narratives. But perhaps there are some minor stories out there that point to different emerging realities.


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McKenzie Wark

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