/ politics

All Quiet on the Techno-Front

In his piece We need to nationalise Google, Facebook and Amazon. Here’s why, Nick Srnicek outlays the basics of a modern, data-centric business model enabled by network technology termed 'platform capitalism' and proposes nationalization of key companies as a solution, but both his critique and the proposed solution have flaws--the critique deifies common capitalist phenomena as something special, something presenting a threat so great that we ought to disregard political principles and stick with instant solutions like 'nationalization'.

The definition of a platform is simple: new, Internet-age companies connect groups of 'users' (buyers/sellers, individuals/brands/advertisers, drivers/passengers, etc.) and due to network effects (the more users a network has, the more useful it is, the more users it gains) they tend to develop into monopolies, i.e. the market tends to centralize in their hands. The fundamental problem with this piece is not that it is incorrect in its analysis, it's almost the exact opposite: there's absolutely nothing new that it brings up, politically speaking. The largest portion of the text merely explores the well-understood nature of capital to extract value, concentrate, and finally adapt to circumstances. There is no magic property of data or machine learning serving the capitalist mode of production, there is nothing "hypercapitalist" about Google or Facebook or Amazon buying smaller companies.

As markets learn to manufacture intelligence, politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip.
~ N. Land

(Sadly, the left seems to have ignored this critical advice by another Nick!)

The 'almost' qualification is important: in part, the text reads as yet another lament for the sake 'small businesses', singling out centralization of capital as something inherently separate from capitalism itself, rather than its natural course of development. "I want to end capitalism" yet again turns into "I want to be exploited by the smaller, fairer wing capital, not large, faceless corporations!" I suggest this is symptomatic to the subculturalization of the left, where the 'symbolic corporate' is more important than the 'real capitalistic', masking the actual pathways towards productive political forms.

Analyzing the forms that capital tends to manifest in and exploring new alleys that enable exploitation is is useful, but it's all for nothing if we mistake the form for the function: after all, the problem isn't in the fact that capital is doing what it always has been, or in the vague liberal fear for the sake of 'our privacy'-- but in the fact that capital exists. The phenomena outlined in the piece are, at best, symptoms, surface injuries that require much more than an instant reaction within the current political framework. For a critique which seems to employ a better approach at analyzing the relationship with modern networking technologies and capitalism, I suggest reading Ursula Huws' The underpinnings of class in the digital age: Living, labour and value (article included in the whole PDF).

Another glaring problem is evident from the title and from the conclusion: nationalization as a solution. Even if the direct absurdity of this demand is ignored, absurdity in the sense of its impossibility and in the sense that apparently it would be an extreme extension of the power of the US government, a question remains: what in the world would be gained through 'nationalization'? Sure, you can advocate the nationalization of practically anything--but then what? It doesn't seem like the political side of this equation has even been examined at all, because working within a capitalist political framework never allows the question of "then what?" to even be asked. Nationalization is not at all a radical policy by itself!

The economy is the entire social field in which production and distribution occur and includes the men participating in this: the state is a specific organisation acting in the social field, and the state in the capitalist period has always had the function of policeman and protector of the interests of a class and a type of production corresponding historically with this class. The state concentrating the economy within itself is an incongruous formula. For marxism, the state is always present in the economy — its power and legal violence are economic factors from first to last. One can best explain it this way: in certain cases, the state, with its administration, assumes the management of industrial concerns; and if it assumes the management of all of them, then it will have centralised the management of the concerns, but not of the economy. Especially so long as distribution takes place with money prices (that these are fixed officially does not matter) the state is a firm among firms, a contractor among contractors; all the worse in that it considers as firms each of its national enterprises, as with the Labourites, Churchillians and Stalinists. Getting away from this situation is not a question of administrative measures, but a problem of revolutionary force, of class war.
~ Bordiga, Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil