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Towards postcapitalist tech (Beyond Digital Capitalism reviewed in ‘Science and Society’)

Beyond Digital Capitalism:
New Ways of Living: Socialist Register 2021

edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo
$27.99 / 338 pages / 978-1-58367-883-1

By Victoria Gritsenko for Science and Society

Beyond Digital Capitalism is a volume of Socialist Register devoted to the nature of digital capitalism and its contradictions in ways that also captured the significance of the pandemic. Its editors, Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, two world-known Canadian political economists and leftist theorists, set a goal to explore “new ways of living” in the 21st century combined with the fact that crisis fully exposed for all to see the severe consequences of longstanding neoliberal state practices.

Although none of the authors offers a direct definition of the term digital capitalism, it is noted that the continued dynamism of capitalism lies now in its most successful high-tech corporations of the new information sector, digital technologies, and social media platforms.

Each chapter of the book is written by a different author (or authors) and addresses its own topic. Ursula Huws considers the present state of the working class, emphasizing its internal polarization (as isolated and mobile, white and of color, and so on), the growth of exploitation and surveillance along with the unprecedented concentration of wealth, lack of dialogue between workers and authorities, and — of course — the new and traditional forms of protest movements and social initiatives. What unites all the categories of workers is the necessity of being “logged” into a platform, and this inevitably means being traced and controlled in all their activities. Bryan D. Palmer raises the philosophical question of time, justly noting that the crisis unleashed by the coronavirus leads to the reconfiguration of time and how it is conceived. He finds that “time, always a frontier of class struggle, has been pushed today to the forefront of contentious labour-capital relations” (16). While being measured and organized by capital marks the entire history of capitalism, time now undergoes some interesting metamorphoses and again becomes a challenge for socialists. He explores the appropriation of the worker’s lifetime under the modern tendencies of precarious employment, lacking both job security and access to “a fair day’s work” on a regular basis.

Relations of work and time are naturally complemented by the next topic of the relations of work and energy. Larry Lohmann stresses the continuities between traditional and digital capitalism, also noting the peculiarities of each. He studies the modern concept of interpretation labor and finds that today, its mechanization is hidden under the mask of creating an artificial intellect. This is an unpleasant tendency because interpretation is not a privilege of white collars, but a natural creative human practice used absolutely everywhere — in manual labor and even in children’s activities. During the last decades, almost every interpretative skill to some extent (and this note seems the most important) was automated. Recognizing and classifying, translating, wayfinding, searching for and retrieving knowledge, remembering, calculating, following a rule flexibly, extending and fulfilling conversations by choosing the right questions to ask, and formulating metaphors do not even comprise the complete list of abilities that are more or less delegated to machines. However, the computer simplifies human skills, which is why it cannot precisely duplicate them, much like what the classical industrial machine did with the complicated labor of an artisan. In both cases, “bosses could more easily avoid paying for anything in excess of the ‘precise quantity’ of ‘skill or force’” (61). The only but crucial difference is that today, capital collects directly many more of the quintillions of tiny moments of the exercise of the integrated interpretive skills and, “by transforming them into big data, add them to the ‘elements of profit’ that Marx wrote of in the first volume of Capital more than 150 years ago” (66). Joan Sangster raises a similar problem regarding the alienation of emotional labor and the surveillance that shapes it. Referring to Marx, Braverman, and Foucault, she traces the links among different forms of control, surveillance, and the ideological normalization thereof throughout the history of capitalism. She argues that the contemporary focus on teamwork and justin- time labor provides workers with electronic surveillance, peer group pressure, and self-regulation, altering their subjectivity and personal autonomy.

The chapter by Matthew Cole, Hugo Radice, and Charles Umney is devoted to the political economy of datafication and new digital Taylorism. However, the most interesting, unfortunately highly non figurative part of it describes the possible alternative future if ICT and data infrastructures were brought to democratic public ownership and distributed more evenly among the workforce. No doubt, all this would be the greatest social achievement ever, but the defensive character and weakness of the worker movement all over the world are just as important. Moreover, as Grace Blakeley argues in her chapter, the centralization of capital became unprecedented during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, who will bring about these brilliant social changes?

Beyond Digital Capitalism would be just one of many theoretical books on the topic popular since the 1970s if there were no two groups of texts, one dedicated to cultural changes in the digital era and another strictly regarding changes in various spheres of public life in pandemic conditions.

Tanner Mirrlees develops the concept of social media for socialists. With an optimism that pervades his chapter, he explains that social media provide an unlimited field for socialist propaganda, interaction, and support. “Significantly, social media platforms have helped socialists to be recognized and platformed by the mainstream media outlets that once marginalized them” (130). However, using them is risky because the relationship between the owner and user of the platform is highly authoritarian, and the latter can easily be surveilled. Derek Hrynyshyn is of a similar mind in his study of the process of commercialization and regulation of Internet platforms. He is also quite optimistic, as he finds that the Internet is a public utility by its nature and can, therefore, help avoid reliance on central administrative control.

All the authors say something about contemporary forms of exploitation and working-class movements. So does Massimiliano Mollona, who studies and creates (!) revolutionary working-class cinema that he thinks “emerges from the encounter between specific conditions of production, circulation, and consumption, contingent working-class struggles and forms of radical imagination” (170). Jerónimo M. Bressán, whose chapter’s theme is the fashion industry, argues that this example is representative of all modern capitalism with its global supply chains, mass production, high level of exploitation, and horrible consequences for the environment. The fashion industry was one of the first that started international outsourcing the employment of informal workers and migrants in subcontracted workshops.

The socialist approach demands a kind of integration of workers, designers, and consumers to solve
these problems without eliminating aesthetic diversity. Texts regarding social problems in pandemic conditions hinge on the health theme. Christoph Hermann studies the evident failure of the healthcare
system in the profit-based capitalist economy, opposing it to a need-based economy, which he hopes, will be built up in the future, but whose traits already exist in cooperatives, non-profit organizations, and so on. Pritha and Pratyush Chandra also see socialized medicine as the only possible solution to capitalist healthcare chaos. They find that diseases were the necessary conditions of capital’s existence not only as the corollaries of capitalist accumulation, but also because they prepared labor for its subsumption by capital (260). Pat Armstrong concentrates on the problems of care homes during the pandemic and concludes that socialism is their only solution. Benjamin Selwyn makes a similar argument regarding the problem of hunger and unhealthy food consumption. The book ends with a broad literature review on our possible postcapitalist future by Greg Albo. This concluding chapter and the rest of the book offer the reader hope to overcome the contemporary crisis and meet a healthier and happier future.

Beyond Digital Capitalism: New Ways of Living: Socialist Register 2021

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