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Democracy, Planning, and Big Data

A Socialism for the Twenty-First Century?

Kees van der Pijl is a retired professor. He used to teach international relations at the University of Sussex. He lives in Amsterdam and can be reached at [email protected].

This article is based on talks given by the author in May 2018 in Moscow, October 2018 in Cambridge, and in December 2019 at Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, and China University of Politics and Law, Beijing.

After the financial crash of 2008, the ability of the ruling classes in the West to maintain a level of social compromise on the home front has been largely exhausted. As Wolfgang Streeck has argued, after the onset of the postwar crisis in the late 1960s, governments were still able to use inflation and debt to postpone the unraveling of the domestic social contract.1 Since 2008, these escape hatches have been closed. The scions of speculative finance, who paradoxically consolidated their directive role after the crash, no longer have anything to offer most of the population. Everywhere, governments are drifting toward authoritarianism and politics of fear, whether or not in response to actual revolt (as in the French Yellow Vest movement). This has become the political formula, or concept of control, of what is best labeled predatory neoliberal capitalism.2

The Soviet bloc also showed the first signs of crisis in the late 1960s. By resorting to repression in response to the attempts in Czechoslovakia to adjust state socialism to a more advanced level of productive forces, it revealed that the system had exhausted its potential for modernization without backsliding into the market and capitalism (which had been one of the options in Czechoslovakia too, but not the only one). Even so, the USSR and its bloc did not collapse until the late 1980s, so the idea of socialism, its problems and possibilities, continued to be associated with Soviet state socialism for another twenty years. For at least a generation, the notion that we live in the era of the transition from capitalism to socialism went down with the lowering of the hammer and sickle flag on the Kremlin in 1991.

However, the development of productive forces and the constraints on the possible social control over the forces of nature in fact entered a new, revolutionary stage from around the time of the original crisis of the late 1960s. This stage can be called the Information Revolution—an era focused on the application of information theories such as cybernetics combined with advances in computer technology and digital communication networks, culminating in the Internet.3 Under capitalist conditions, this has already resulted in a knowledge economy, or noönomy, but the social, auto-regulatory possibilities it opens up are bound to be incompatible with the private appropriation characteristic of capitalism.4

Private versus Social

In the Grundrisse, the rough notes for Capital, Karl Marx speculated how machines, fixed capital, would ultimately evolve into an automatic system. “The means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery…set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself. This automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.”5 Automated machinery represents social knowledge transformed into assets controlled by capital: “The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour.… In so far as machinery develops with the accumulation of society’s science, of productive force generally, general social labour presents itself not in labour but in capital.”6

This sums up the contradiction we are experiencing today: the social brain (roughly, the Internet) is collective, combined, social, but it is controlled by capital—that is, a handful of large corporations such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. These also serve as the eyes and ears of U.S. and allied Anglophone intelligence, the Five Eyes, and are themselves interlocked with financial institutions such as BlackRock and the interests they serve.7

The Information Revolution accelerated after the Richard Nixon administration uncoupled the dollar from its gold cover, freeing itself from the need to balance the books as long as the world’s propertied classes were willing to bank on U.S. economic and military might, and the U.S. currency remained the preferred means of payment in the world economy.8 This helped the information technology (IT) sector establish itself in the 1980s and ’90s as a U.S. phenomenon: Silicon Valley.9 Early on, data gathering for the intelligence agencies commissioning the research from which the big IT monopolies would emerge created problems of storage, not unlike those of the quickly rising financial sector. Even the largest mainframe computers could not handle the amount of data generated by innovations such as derivatives, securitization, and super-leveraging. In 1986, a company developing parallel database systems based on a cluster architecture, Teradata, delivered the first such system to the discount-store-turned-shadow-bank Kmart.10

Today, even Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the rest of the big monopolies, along with the surveillance state with which they are closely aligned, find it difficult to control the exponentially expanding amount of data. Stored in several thousands of commercial servers, Big Data are analyzed through dedicated systems such as the Google File System, an expandable, distributed file system that supports large-scale, data-intensive applications.11 Even so, the IT system owners do not have the Internet to themselves. Today, most people are connected in one way or another, with even electricity-starved regions catching up fast.12 This highlights the democratic potential of the Information Revolution, for while Internet and related technology “creates new capacities…these new capacities may be more important for those that did not have them, than for those who already did.”13

Information, knowledge, is immediately social (one can, in principle, possess an item of information without somebody else being deprived of it), and only the capitalist regime, by attaching intellectual property rights to, say, new medicines, bars such information from universal use.14 Technically, the new productive forces should enable the world to move toward a more humane society, but all kinds of stratagems are being developed to force them back into the capitalist straitjacket. The 2009 World Economic Forum’s annual gathering at Davos presented a New Deal on Data meant to turn those providing their information into active property owners. However, the allure of emancipation characteristic of so many aspects of the digital universe hides its exploitative thrust. Ubiquitous electronic networking dissolves the remaining barriers separating private life from work. Alongside flexible and freelance jobs, the sharing economy in which every aspect of personality and possessions (bicycle, car, home, and so on) is forcibly monetized, places all human existence, at all times, under the discipline of capital.15

Yet the notion that only the market can regulate a modern economy given its overwhelming complexity, ruling out planning (the thesis of neoliberal capitalism’s paramount ideologue, Friedrich Hayek), is beginning to wear thin in the age of Big Data.16 The choice between planning and freedom was always an ideological construct, floated by Hayek and other organic intellectuals of the financial asset-owning strata. Monocentric efficiency and humanistic polycentrism can be mutually accommodated by democracy in a range of ways, as the Polish Marxist Wlodzimierz Brus already established in the early 1970s.17

A flexible, cybernetic system of central planning connected to digitalized individual preferences fed into the larger framework, in the way supermarkets respond to customer demand, is one way of such a mutual accommodation. Or, in the words of Silicon Valley guru Tim O’Reilly: “We are at a unique time when new technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.”18

How, then, can we ensure that, in the current authoritarian conjuncture, such regulation is democratized?

The Information Revolution in Historical Perspective

The Information Revolution, conceived as the process ultimately leading to the universal, real-time interconnectedness of the entire population of Earth, can be understood as the third great space-time compression in human history, comparable to the Industrial Revolution and, further back, the Neolithic Revolution that brought us the domestication of plants and animals. One common element of the three qualitative leaps in how human communities utilize the sun’s energy was, for obvious reasons, that the initial advantages arising from them bolstered the existing ruling classes first. Yet, both exchange advantages and war-making capacities in the sphere of foreign relations, and opportunities for exploitation in the sphere of production and reproduction, inevitably generated possibilities, mental and material, for subaltern forces as well. If we confine ourselves to the Industrial and the Information Revolutions, we can identify the key differences between the two socialisms I distinguish: what I call industrial labor socialism and digital, Big Data ecosocialism.

The Industrial Revolution had its epicenter in Britain, mobilizing the human and material resources of its empire. Arising from this mutation, in the Atlantic West, capitalism was consolidated as the new mode of production and sovereign equality as the ascendant mode of foreign relations. This allowed contender states resisting Anglophone supremacy, beginning with absolutist France, then Prussia-Germany, Japan, and so on to catch up industrially, exposing the remaining land empires (China, Persia, the Ottoman empire) to the rule of the West.19

In the course of the century following the Industrial Revolution, labor socialism emerged as the internal subaltern force resisting it. The workers’ movement inspired by Marx, Frederick Engels, and the First International they founded was eventually destroyed in the First World War, but Soviet-style state socialism, forced back into an external contender posture facing the liberal capitalist heartland, replicated, successfully at first, the Industrial Revolution, as other contenders had done before.

Today, we are in the midst of another world-historic transformation, the Information Revolution. Externally, it pits the declining West, led by the United States, against a loose, largely involuntary contender bloc. In countries like Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, capitalist restoration or neoliberal restructuring was followed by the discovery that they were no longer supposed to defend their sovereignty and instead had to submit to Western global governance. So, in the foreign relations domain, the new possibilities empower the West first, which occupies the commanding heights of the geopolitical economy militarily, intelligence-wise, financially, and culturally, retaining the ability to strike whenever its hegemony is endangered. Systems not accessible to Five Eyes spying, such as those run by the Chinese IT giant Huawei, are attacked by all means available, from boycotts to hostage-taking, to keep this preeminence intact.20

Internally, the achievements of the Information Revolution are put to use for class oppression and heightened exploitation. Facial recognition coupled with round-the-clock observation of people gives rise to potentially totalitarian control; in every segment of the wealth scale, “impersonal systems of discipline and control produce certain knowledge of human behaviour independent of consent.”21 A Swiss specialist in neuroengineering, Marcello Ienca, reviewing the new departures into brain and identity manipulation by the large IT corporations, warns that the time in which they will be able to actually direct people’s preferences is not too far away any more. He argues for a “right to psychological continuity” to prevent personality-changing interventions already being experimented with in the military.22

The new IT applications are not confined to the West, except that here they play out in the context of a spiritual crisis arising from the erosion of life chances for most people. Austerity to combat irredeemable indebtedness and financial irresponsibility, and festering wars and mass migration fuel new superstitions and a rise of superficiality and vulgarity in popular culture. The Internet, Marx’s social brain, like any biological brain, is also the repository of much that we would not normally see fit to express openly. Yet, under cover of anonymity, users like DonaldDuck2 and his virtual friends have no qualms creating a downward spiral in which a new generation of populist politicians cater to their instincts, further changing the signposts, and so on. Can this be the social material with which a new, democratic, and ecologically friendly socialism will be erected?

The former socialist states forced back into a contender role in spite of their conversion to capitalism, such as China or Russia, have so far not been able to develop alternative, cohesive worldviews and ways of life sufficiently attractive to claim hegemonic status. While maintaining a measure of state direction and protection, they also remain exposed to both neoliberal doctrine and Western popular culture undermining their defense of sovereignty.

The Information Revolution, then, has created a situation in which, once again, the new possibilities in principle empower the Western ruling classes first—but both on the foreign relations and the relations of production dimensions, their ability to really impose the neoliberal regime are compromised. To steer humanity clear of a full-scale central war and irreversible destruction of the biosphere, it is therefore urgent that the IT infrastructure is made transparent and placed under some form of democratic control. So far all attempts to transfer governance of the Internet and World Wide Web to multilateral bodies, even after the Edward Snowden revelations on global surveillance by the Five Eyes, were effectively sabotaged by the United States, European Union, and private body assigning domain names, ICANN, domiciled in California.23 The fact that the capitalist noönomy has become entirely dependent on IT—through the Internet of Things, intelligent machines linked to the social brain, or otherwise—rules out that it would be switched off for political reasons other than temporarily and locally. So, in a way, the accessibility of the Internet is guaranteed by the fact that it has meanwhile become indispensable for the operation of the economy as well.

How can we expect progressive forces to be able to disentangle themselves from this mutual embrace and obtain democratic transparency? This, in my view, depends on the economic prospects of speculative capital, the social force guiding the West. Barring a resort to all-out war, a new collapse of the 2008 type would accelerate the transition toward a new, associated mode of production that has matured within the old one, which itself has been brought to ruin by predatory finance.24 It is a crucial, although not entirely new, factor that the IT infrastructure for a twenty-first-century socialism is largely in place. In the Russian Revolution too there were structures that could be taken over intact, but they did not go beyond state control (of the war economy).25 This state degenerated into the party-police state under Joseph Stalin, but eventually was able to resurrect its socialist antecedents and, among many other legacies, left us the experiments with digital planning that continue to be relevant today.

Soviet Planning: Command Economy and Digital Departures

Soviet (state) socialism crystallized in the wake of the failed world revolutions of 1917–24. In hindsight, this marks the moment when the internal challenge arising from the Industrial Revolution, labor socialism, became secondary to the external one, a contender state resisting Western imperialism. The command economy that was instituted under the Five-Year Plans in the late 1920s relied on (initially extreme) coercion to compensate for Russia’s economic underdevelopment and ultimately allowed the USSR to defeat the Nazi invaders. In the 1960s, when growth began to slow down after the initial breakneck industrialization, a digital transformation was considered a way out. Some of the USSR’s achievements were far ahead of their time and heralded our current epoch, even though their revolutionary potential was ultimately blocked.

Computer design began at the Academy of Sciences in Kiev in the 1940s. Military applications were a priority and the Soviet leadership wanted to respond to the computerized air-defense system being developed in the United States with a comparable system of their own. The first book in Russian dealing with computers, Electronic Digital Machines, was written by Anatoliy I. Kitov, a colonel engineer in the USSR armed forces.26

Ideological barriers to theories such as cybernetics, needed for the effective use of electronic devices, were only lifted after Stalin’s death. In his speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, party leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalinism and advocated factory automation. Kitov then proposed making the envisaged air-defense network available for civilian use in peacetime, but he bypassed the military hierarchy to address Khrushchev directly and was stripped of his rank and expelled from the party. The idea of digitalizing the command economy remained alive, although a school advocating profitability as the lever for efficiency also emerged, led by E. Liberman.27

At the Twenty-Second Party Congress of 1961, Khrushchev again declared it imperative to accelerate the application of digital technologies to the planned economy.28 In this period, following the Sputnik space successes, the enthusiasm about the USSR overtaking the West was at its height and cybernetic economic management was a key component of the fervor. A report for the Council of Foreign Relations in the United States noted that Soviet planners saw cybernetics as the most effective instrument for “the rationalization of human activity in a complex industrial society.”29 The Soviet press began popularizing the idea of computers as the “machines of communism,” causing U.S. observers to consider that “if any country were to achieve a completely integrated and controlled economy in which ‘cybernetic’ principles were applied to achieve various goals, the Soviet Union would be ahead of the United States in reaching such a state.”30 The CIA published a series of reports in which the agency expanded on this theme, warning in particular that the USSR might be on its way to building a “unified information net” that in the eyes of some of president John F. Kennedy’s advisers would, if successful, “bury the United States” as Khrushchev had promised.31

At this point, Viktor M. Glushkov, a mathematician and the director of the Computing Center of the Academy of Sciences of Soviet Ukraine, envisioned the National Automated System for Computation and Information Processing, hiring the disgraced Kitov as his assistant.32 Alexei Kosygin, then deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, encouraged Glushkov to elaborate his ideas on digitalizing the planning system. However, in 1964, when a comprehensive digital blueprint was finally submitted, Khrushchev was sidelined by the combined forces of conservatism and caution. The new leadership under Leonid Brezhnev (and with Alexei Kosygin as prime minister) opted for greater enterprise autonomy along the lines of Liberman, accepting that the last thing local bosses wanted was to have all their assets and activities digitally recorded by the center.33

At the same time, Kosygin was engaged in striking large-scale deals with Western European companies in order to modernize the Soviet economy. His son-in-law, Dzhermen Gvishiani, would fashion the Soviet response to the U.S. plan to launch a joint think tank to deal with problems of advanced industrial society. Out of this would emerge the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, in which Gvishiani held the top Soviet position until 1986.34

From the West, IIASA was perceived as a means of subverting Soviet state socialism and—since that did not eventuate—Anglo-U.S. support for the institute was terminated after the neoliberal turn under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. As we can now see, this also interrupted a transnational process of class formation of a forward-looking managerial cadre—that is, specialists typically inclined to systems thinking and interested in problems transcending the East-West divide.35 The mathematical global modeling developed at IIASA, the United Nations, and for the Club of Rome (in which Gvishiani was involved since his first meetings with the heads of Olivetti, FIAT, and other pioneers of East-West trade, who set the Club up) was used to address issues such as raw-material use and atmospheric and oceanic pollution.36

The work of Glushkov, Nikita Moiseev, and others on environmental systems struck deep roots in the USSR. In close collaboration with U.S. scientists such as Carl Sagan, who were concerned about the cavalier attitude of the Reagan administration toward nuclear war, this culminated in a joint U.S.-Soviet report on the danger of nuclear winter.37 By applying complexity theory to the biosphere, it was found that the extinction of life on the planet by a full-scale nuclear exchange might equally come about by systemic changes in Earth’s biosphere, and not even slowly, but potentially by a comparable, sudden catastrophe.38

The sort of planning that emerged from this experience is qualitatively different than planning the command economy by which a contender state pursues a catch-up industrialization. Indeed, digital planning is not just planning with the aid of computers, but feeding vast amounts of, eventually, Big Data into computer systems and discovering rather than dictating outcomes, as we are witnessing today with climate predictions—including the uncertainties that come with them. The Mikhail Gorbachev leadership was guided by these notions, but it arrived too late to transform the social structures of the command economy to a digital planning format and went under with the USSR and the Soviet bloc. Thus, the visionary departures in the direction of digital planning were buried in the one type of society that had the social structures for it to succeed.39

A second experiment with digital planning occurred in Chile under Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government. In this case, the element of cybernetic adjustment, including responsiveness to supply issues and strikes, was explicitly accounted for, but it was cut short by Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Stafford Beer, who had been brought in to head Chile’s Cybersyn project, shared the progressive managerialism of the IIASA/UN/Club of Rome cadre, but he was kept out of IIASA to protect the institute’s nonpolitical format. His Chilean deputy, Raúl Espejo, narrowly escaped the clutches of the U.S.-backed terror regime.40 This takes us to the issue of the subject of a resumption of the project of digital planning today.

Who Will Bring About Regime Change?

The process of the class formation of a progressive managerial cadre, pushed to the left by working-class militancy in the 1960s and ’70s, was interrupted by the neoliberal counterrevolution. Closing the era of postwar, broad class compromise, the resurgent capitalist class instead struck a more restricted deal with the upper layers of management and asset-owning middle classes while attacking the working class and progressive forces across the globe.41 Certainly, one cohort of the IT cadre in Silicon Valley still shared the idea of Apple’s Steve Jobs that the personal computer was an instrument of emancipation, but this 1960s outlook was soon channeled into a libertarian, right-wing direction “using cybernetic ideals of the counterculture to sell corporate politics as a revolutionary act.”42 Whether the privileged cadre will be inclined to follow the lead of the mass insurrections currently taking place in France, Chile, and elsewhere, may depend on the mobilization of those educated for a cadre role but un- or underemployed in the current crisis, and sharing the fate of the lower classes finding themselves excluded.43

As Nikolai Bukharin already wrote at the time of the Russian Revolution, for the cadre to give up their privileged position will be a tortuous process because their position is dependent on capitalism.44 So how would their orientation once again converge with the outlook of the popular masses? In this regard, the French Situationist philosopher Guy Debord provided important clues in the late 1960s. A key organic intellectual of progressive class formation of that period, Debord, in his manifesto The Society of the Spectacle, argued that unlike the bourgeoisie, which came to power as the “class of the economy” (against the low-productivity, stagnant manorial economy of late feudalism), the proletariat, as the class with no enduring stake in existing society, stood little chance to out-compete the rapacious dynamism of capital. Labor socialism, and state socialism as its ultimate historic embodiment, found this out the hard way.

According to Debord, then, the progressive forces can only be superior to the bourgeoisie on the basis of their ability to look beyond the capitalist horizon, as a “class of consciousness.”45 This consciousness will crucially include concern for the maintenance, indeed recovery, of the biosphere, something largely absent from labor socialism, since in the spirit of the Industrial Revolution its overriding idea was that progress was based on the conquest and expropriation of nature.

As far as actual production goes, already today the IT infrastructure in principle “enables people to depart from immediate involvement in material production while remaining its ‘controllers and regulators.’”46 This confirms Marx’s assessment of a future economy as “an automaton, a moving power that moves itself,” in which workers are merely the conscious linkages. Under Big Data socialism, we must expect this “collective worker” of engineers-controllers to take the place of the capitalist oligarchy and reorient strategic decisions from private profit to the survival concerns of humanity. Labor will be about performing the remaining creative tasks, while repetitive tasks that we associate with the automaton will be left to algorithmic regulation.47

Now, the consciousness disseminated through the Internet is a far cry from, say, the Marxism embraced by the industrial proletariat of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Far from being a corrective to ideological distortion, the Web itself is a key channel for the spread of misanthropic racism, climate change denial, and other abominations. However, the real movement is always the determinant of the flow of ideas, not the other way around. The epochal revelations of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Snowden, who have no equivalent in the opposite camp, resonate in the many quality websites and remaining left print publications that share the spirit of these persecuted champions of transparency. One may also put it this way: if what progressive channels publicize was not superior to fake news and hatred (in the sense that revolutionary Marxism was intellectually superior to the chauvinist militarism that led Europe into the First World War), a revolution would deserve to fail—just as the Stalinist regression to mechanical materialism was a major factor in the demise of Soviet state socialism.

How a transition toward a situation in which society governs the economy, rather than the other way around, is not a matter that can be predicted in detail. The geopolitical divide between the capitalist Atlantic heartland and the contender sphere outside it would again be a major modifying factor, as in all modern revolutions.48 It is enough to establish that all elements for a world-historical transformation are in place; the transition hinges on how states will respond to pressures to ensure the security (job, food, energy security, and the like) of the population under conditions of extreme financial volatility. Inevitably, the state will then take precedence over the IT monopolies. “Just as companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon build regulatory mechanisms to manage their platforms, government exists as a platform to ensure the success of our society, and that platform needs to be well regulated.”49 Whether that will take the form of enlightened despotism or democracy, and what form democracy will take in turn, will be decided in real struggles.

For one, it will be essential that movements making demands on capital and the state also demand that control facilities embedded in data systems are publicly accessible. The (anonymous) metadata now in the hands of the large IT monopolies and dedicated companies like Palantir, Airbnb, Uber, hospitals, insurance companies, and countless others should be made available to citizens, city and national government, and science, as part of a shift to democratic self-regulation.50 The Open Data movement, of which Aaron Swartz was an iconic figure (he took his own life when faced with a draconian sentence in the United States for making privately copyrighted academic materials publicly accessible), seeks to create a data universe parallel to the Big Data available to the corporate sector, civic data. Indeed, it has been argued that the ubiquity of data itself already works to generate a culture moving away from bourgeois possessive individualism, or any other individualism irresponsible for the larger questions of human survival. The availability of this data creates expectations and habits that help build a civic culture resistant to corporate control.51

This new political culture would then interact with the shift in the operation of representative organs, from the United Nations and its functional and regional organizations down to national and subnational parliaments and councils. As more and more issues concerning the organization of the economy and the safeguarding of the biosphere including human health are reclaimed for democratic decision-making, these bodies will again begin to attract quality memberships. After all, the decline of representative organs has everything to do with the fact that, under neoliberal capitalism, the strategic decisions are made by the oligarchies organized in (trans-) national planning bodies closely aligned with major banks and corporations.52 IT infrastructure, which, for example, provides accessible tax data, data on politicians’ records, and data on representatives’ secondary occupations, will surely play a role in the transition to a more democratic society.

What distinguishes a twenty-first-century Big Data socialism from state socialism grafted on the industrial labor movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that it would not be a willed utopia. Only when a majority wants change will a revolution be democratic. “A determinate class undertakes from its particular situation the universal emancipation of society,” Marx wrote in 1844. “This class emancipates the whole society, but only on the condition that the whole society shares its situation [emphasis added].”53 The original labor movement never faced the situation in which this would have applied; hence the need for a tightly organized party to lead the masses, impose and consolidate socialism by coercion, and so on. In the Information Revolution it is different: no otherworldly, exotic experiment is necessary, because everybody is connected or will be soon and issues concerning the refashioning of the political order can be discussed with reference to a reality for all to see. Certainly, it would at some point require the expropriation of large private concerns, ideally beginning with the media, in order to make meaningful public discussion possible.

In this way, the aforementioned structures of public representation, subject to digital transparency, may be expected to begin to set socialist targets beyond the day-to-day management of current affairs. These would ideally include:

  1. A general rise in the cultural level and living standards, focused especially on the working class and other disadvantaged groups;
  2. A long-term resource-constrained pattern of development respecting the biosphere;
  3. Real economic gender equality;
  4. The disappearance of all forms of distinctions of class, including the one between town and country.54

Within these broad parameters of a reorientation of society as a whole, specific digital regulation would require four further steps: 1) an understanding of the desired outcome; 2) “real-time measurement whether that outcome is being achieved”; 3) algorithms (ordering rules meant to allow adjustment on the basis of new data), and 4) “periodic, deeper analysis of whether the algorithms themselves are correct and performing as expected.”55

Summing up, a comprehensive, democratically controlled, ecologically secured, and digital planned economy is no longer a utopian ideology that requires imposition by a vanguard of trained revolutionaries, as in the case of labor socialism (certainly in countries such as preindustrial Russia or China). The digital infrastructure is a democracy waiting to be turned into a functioning social order. It lays the foundation for an appropriate political superstructure and practice that is not experienced as being led by ideological conviction. Instead, it will rely primarily on hegemony, consensual rule as a permanent condition.

The idea that hegemony is about education, one of Antonio Gramsci’s key tenets, comes into play here. Education is not a matter of representation of an existing state of affairs waiting out there, which education informs us about, but a route to a reality in the making. Given that, in the digital economy, algorithmic regulation reduces the burden of compulsory toil ever-faster, people’s time will increasingly be available for cultural enrichment and technological retraining. Thus, education becomes the primary reproductive structure of society, instead of the economy, which is largely automated and no longer provides the satisfaction of the original work experience.56

Democracy, then, is contemporary to the transition itself, rather than postponed as a matter to be solved later, as was the case with labor socialism. It will inevitably take on new and unforeseen implications and associations, in the way soviets emerged in 1905. Whether there will be coercive aspects of the transformation, given its regionally and internationally uneven progress, is something that cannot be excluded. However, digital transparency will help prevent consolidation of the power of those entrusted with these tasks.

To repeat: the key aspect of a transition to a Big Data socialism is that IT infrastructure and the ability of people to think in terms of its possibilities (something that a new financial crash will only make more acute) are already in place. They are coming more into conflict with the oligarchic trend of contemporary capitalism and state repression with every passing day. A digital socialism will build on much that is already familiar and will also underline the old reformist tenet that socialism is not the negation of liberal capitalism, but transcendence in the sense of negation and continuation, the further development of tendencies already working within capitalism.

There is no point in further detailing the wish list of an imaginary digital socialism beyond the above. It suffices to establish that if capitalism, which is exhausting society and nature alike, is left unchecked, it will inevitably develop into fascism again, since it can no longer bring forth a broad social consensus or accept compromise in foreign relations. Financial predation, the round-the-clock assault on nature and the threat of war do not leave us any choice but to engage in an urgent debate on how a different society might be achieved.


  1. Wolfgang Streeck, Gekaufte Zeit: Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2013).
  2. See Kees van der Pijl, “A Transnational Class Analysis of the Current Crisis,” in Transnational Capital and Class Fractions, ed. Bob Jessop and Henk Overbeek (London: Routledge, 2019).
  3. Evgeny Morozov, “Socialize the Data Centres!,” New Left Review 91 (2015): 57.
  4. Sergey Bodrunov, “Noönomy,” (English version presented at the Cambridge-St. Petersburg colloquium Marx in a High Technology Era: Globalisation, Capital and Class, Cambridge, October 2018).
  5. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 692.
  6. Marx, Grundrisse, 694; emphasis added.
  7. Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014); Peter Phillips, Giants (New York: Seven Stories, 2018).
  8. Duccio Bassosi, Il Governo del Dollaro (Florence: Polistampa, 2006), 34.
  9. Paul Boccara, Transformations et Crise du Capitalisme Mondialisé (Pantin: Le Temps des Cérises, 2008), 80, 88.
  10. James Jorgensen, Money Shock (New York: American Management Association, 1986), 95–96; Chen Min, Mao Shiwen, and Liu Yunhao, “Big Data: A Survey,” Mobile Network Applications 19, no. 2 (2014): 174.
  11. Chen, Mao, and Liu, “Big Data: A Survey,” 186.
  12. Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat (London: Pluto, 2015), 103.
  13. Michel Bauwens, Vasilis Kostakis, and Alex Pazaitis, Peer to Peer (London: University of Westminster Press, 2019), 33–34.
  14. Christopher May, Global Political Economy of Intellectual Property Rights (London: Routledge, 2000).
  15. Timo Daum, Das Kapital Sind Wir: Zur Kritik der Digitalen Ökonomie (Hamburg: Nautilus, 2017), 183–84.
  16. Shoshana Zuboff, “Big Other,” Journal of Information Technology 30 (2015): 78.
  17. Wlodzimierz Brus, Sozialisierung und Politisches System, trans. E. Werfel (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,1975), 192–93.
  18. Tim O’Reilly, “Open Data and Algorithmic Regulation,” in Beyond Transparency, ed. Brett Goldstein with Lauren Dyson (San Francisco: Code for America, 2013), 293.
  19. See Kees van der Pijl, Transnational Classes and International Relations (London: Routledge, 1998).
  20. Five Eyes Against Huawei,” Voltaire Network, December 7, 2018.
  21. Zuboff, “Big Other,” 81.
  22. Marcello Ienca, “Do We Have a Right to Mental Privacy and Cognitive Liberty?,” Scientific American, May 3, 2017.
  23. Prabir Purkayashta and Rishab Bailey, “S. Control of the Internet,” Monthly Review 66, no. 3 (July–August 2014): 114, 118–19.
  24. Karl Marx, “The Role of Credit in Capitalist Production,” chap. 27 in Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1991), 566–73.
  25. I. Lenin, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, in Collected Works, vol. 25 (1917; repr., Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972).
  26. Benjamin Peters, “Normalizing Soviet Cybernetics,” Information & Culture: A Journal of History 47, no. 2 (2012): 154, 169–70.
  27. Slava Gerovitch, “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network,” History and Technology 24, no. 4 (2008): 338–40; Evsej G. Liberman, Methoden der Wirtschaftslenkung im Sozialismus, trans. E. Werfel (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,1974), 11.
  28. Peters, “Normalizing Soviet Cybernetics,” 164.
  29. Quoted in Alexander Vucinich, “Science,” in Prospects for Soviet Society, ed. Allen Kassof (New York: Praeger, Council on Foreign Relations, 1968), 319–20.
  30. Gerovitch, “InterNyet,” 335–36.
  31. Gerovitch, “InterNyet,” 335–36; Peters, “Normalizing Soviet Cybernetics,” 165.
  32. Academician Glushkov’s ‘Life Work,’” History of Computing in Ukraine.
  33. Michael A. Lebowitz, The Contradictions of Real Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), 118–19; Gerovitch, “InterNyet,” 343.
  34. Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, The Power of Systems (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016) 44, 48, 69.
  35. Kees van der Pijl, “Cadres and the Classless Society,” chap. 5 in Transnational Classes and International Relations.
  36. Rindzevičiūtė, The Power of Systems, 161, 178.
  37. Robert Scheer, With Enough Shovels (New York: Random House, 1982); John Bellamy Foster, “Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis,” Monthly Review 67, no. 2 (June 2015): 9–11.
  38. William Rees, “Scale, Complexity and the Conundrum of Sustainability,” in Planning Sustainability, ed. M. Kenny and J. Meadowcroft (London: Routledge, 1999), 109–10; Georgi Golitsyn and Aleksandr Ginzburg, “Natural Analogs of a Nuclear Catastrophe,” in The Night After…, ed. Y. Velikhov, trans. A. Rosenzweig and Y. Taube (Moscow: Mir, 1985).
  39. Manuel Castells, End of Millennium (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 47–56.
  40. Katharina Loeber, “Big Data, Algorithmic Regulation, and the History of the Cybersyn Project in Chile, 1971–1973,” Social Sciences 7, no. 65 (2018): 1–15; Rindzevičiūtė, The Power of Systems, 71–72. Espejo is currently president of the World Organization of Systems and Cybernetics.
  41. Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, “Neo-Liberal Dynamics—Towards a New Phase?,” in Global Regulation, ed. Kees van der Pijl, L. Assassi, and D. Wigan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 30; Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, Au-Delà du Capitalisme? (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998).
  42. Yasha Levine, Surveillance Valley (New York: Public Affairs, 2018), 136.
  43. Jean-Claude Paye, “The Yellow Vests in France: People or Proletariat?,” Monthly Review 71, no. 2 (June 2019); Christophe Guilluy, La France Périphérique (Paris: Flammarion, 2015).
  44. Nikolai Bukharin, Économique de la Période de Transition, trans. E. Zarzycka-Berard and J.-M. Brohm (1920; repr., Paris: Études et Documentation Internationales, 1976), 104.
  45. Guy Debord, La Société du Spectacle (1967; repr., Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 82.
  46. Bodrunov, “Noönomy,” 158–59.
  47. Alan Freeman, “Twilight of the Machinocrats,” in Handbook of the International Political Economy of Production, ed. Kees van der Pijl (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2015); Daum, Das Kapital Sind Wir, 60–66. The notion of the collective worker was developed by Marx in the unpublished sixth chapter of Capital, cited here as Un Chapitre Inédit du Capital, trans. R. Dangeville (Paris: Ed. Générales 10/18, 1971).
  48. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution (1938; repr., Providence: Berg, 1993).
  49. O’Reilly, “Open Data and Algorithmic Regulation,” 292.
  50. Daum, Das Kapital Sind Wir, 149.
  51. Eric Gordon and Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, “Making a Habit Out of Engagement,” in Beyond Transparency, 139–40.
  52. William K. Carroll, The Making of a Transnational Capitalist Class (London: Zed, 2010).
  53. Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in Early Political Writings, ed. and trans. Joseph O’Malley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 67.
  54. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism (Nottingham: Spokesman, 1993), 57–58.
  55. O’Reilly, “Open Data and Algorithmic Regulation,” 289–90.
  56. See Boccara, Transformations et Crise du Capitalisme Mondialisé; Paul Boccara, Une Sécurité d’Emploi ou de Formation (Pantin: Le Temps des Cérises, 2002).
2020, Volume 71, Issue 11 (April 2020)
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