(This is the first of a series of posts in which I provide ten proposals as to how to affirmatively disrupt the disruptors of ubercapitalism and the corporate sharing economy. Together these posts constitute the draft of a text provisionally titled Data Commonism, designed to follow on from my recently published short book, The Uberfication of the University. If the latter provides a dystopian sense of what is lying in store for many us over the course of the next few years, Data Commonism is more optimistic in that it shows what we can do about it.
In his essay on “The Political Technology of Individuals,” Michel Foucault notes how those profound moments of social change that have produced “institutions oriented toward the care of individual life--the great welfare, public health and medical assistance programs”--have often co-existed in political structures with “large destructive mechanisms.” The Industrial Revolution saw the introduction of compulsory primary school education, while the immediate period after the Second World War heralded the development in the United Kingdom of both the NHS and the welfare state--the latter two being precisely the kind of public service institutions that are currently being starved of funding and gradually privatized.
Now our own era is of course far from free of the dangers posed by large destructive mechanisms. There are disruptive innovations in new digital technologies, including those associated with networked social, mobile, and interactive media, as well as artificial intelligence, gene editing, pre-emptive, cognitive, and contextual computing. The result is expected to be a cull of large numbers of middle-class jobs in the global North and West, with very little to put in their place. Indeed, a 2016 World Economic Forum report estimates that by 2020 technology will have created 2 million jobs but displaced 7 million. (It should be emphasized that sweat-shop and slave labor will still be required in the global South and East nonetheless to build the hardware and mine the minerals that digital technologies such as iPhones are made from.) Richard Florida describes the situation rather ominously as “the great reset.” From this point of view, Uber assumes the appearance of a “dry-run for autonomous, ever-circling, point-to-point fleet vehicles in which humans stand in for the robots to come.” Such a lack of paid employment--a situation characterised by some as “post-work”--combined with the associated falling value of labor, could quite conceivably lead to the breakdown of Western consumer capitalism if there is no system of finance capable of continuing to extend credit, or universal basic income (as is being introduced in Utrecht and a number of other municipalities in the Netherlands, and is being considered for adoption as a policy by the U.K. Labour Party), to sustain the purchasing power of large swathes of the population now rendered surplus to requirements. In February 2016 the Office for National Statistics was already reporting a decline in the quantity of material consumed in the United Kingdom: down to 659.1m tonnes in 2013 (10.3 tonnes per person) from a peak of 889.9m tonnes in 2001 (15.1 tonnes per person). As Steve Howard, head of sustainability for Ikea puts it: “If we look on a global basis, in the West we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff… peak home furnishings.” (The recycle-repair-reuse approach of certain elements of the sharing economy can be viewed as one response to “peak stuff.” So too can the wider shift to a more circular economy in which products are mended and reused rather than repeatedly bought, thrown away, and then bought again. The Swedish government is even planning to introduce tax breaks on the cost of fixing bicycles, fridges, washing machines and other goods to encourage such a culture of “repair” rather than “replace.”)
Other large destructive mechanisms include the ongoing financial crisis in many parts of the world, as evident in the waning of the political and economic hegemony of the United States, those policies imposed in the name of “austerity” in Europe and the United Kingdom to defend the neoliberal order after the crisis of 2008, mass unemployment in southern Europe, the financial collapse in Greece, the marked slowing down of growth in China, and the slump in the price of oil and steel.
There is also the “democratic deficit,” whereby citizens in established democracies are increasingly alienated from a technocratic class that is no longer seen as being able to manage neoliberal globalisation, increasing inequality having resulted in large sections of the population feeling they have been left behind while an elite minority have prospered. This disaffection has led to the election victories of Syriza in Greece, the popularity of Podemos in Spain, the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon in the U.K., as well as the emergence of a range of “horizontal” movements for social justice and more egalitarian economic models, both local and global in nature. I am thinking of the Occupy, indignados, and Nuit debout protests in particular. But there is also the opposition to neoliberal globalization in favour of an emphasis on place, nation and borders that has seen a revival of the far right. This has led to the post-fact, post-truth, hyper-emotive politics and populist distrust of experts that was such a feature of the nostalgic nationalism of the 2016 Brexit campaign in Britain, and presidential election victory of Donald Trump in the United States.
Still, while Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, may have predicted that the “‘Anglo-Saxon’ crisis of 2008-09” and subsequent “‘Euro-Area’ crisis of 2011/2012” is due to be followed by an “‘Emerging Market’ crisis of 2015 onwards,” what we have seen so far, primarily, is a continued belief in “pro-growth” capitalism as the only game in town. To be sure, stock markets fell sharply in China, Germany, and France at the beginning of 2016. Coupled to instability in the Middle East, specifically the possibility of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, this led the then U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to describe 2016 as less “mission accomplished” when it comes to the economy recovering from austerity and more as “mission critical.” And, if anything, this is all the more the case almost a year later, given there is now the influx of refuges from Syria and Iraq, the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in France, Belgium, and Germany, the possibility of war with Russia over the Crimea, and instability of Turkey to consider too. Nevertheless, if Syrizia, Podemos, and Corbynmania--not to mention Brexit and Trump--are all evidence that a mental break with neoliberalism has occurred after the financial crash of 2008, it has not as yet been accompanied by a decisive political, economic or cultural break. Witness the way British prime minister Theresa May is currently arguing that a free-trading U.K. can lead on developing solutions to anti-neoliberal and anti-globalisation sentiments from outside of the E.U. May wants to save the neoliberal order from the reactionary populism of Trump and UKIP’s Nigel Farage by renewing its legitimacy in the 21st century. And the way she wants to do this is by using the power of the state to steer the shift from old industries to new ones.
Part of the difficulty, as Felix Stalder notes, lies “in assessing when a ‘certain stage’ is reached in historical reality” in which one can tell whether such destruction “acts--as it does in normal times--as the engine of capitalist innovation (Joseph Schumpeter style), or, if it is already at the point where it harbours something deeper, a structural crisis of the system as such.” Certainly, as Stalder says, it remains to be seen if any of these developments affects the “entire system or just certain segments that might be reorganised through another mode of production, parallel to, or subsumed under, the capitalist mode.” For example, does the oligarchic economic nationalism of Trump in the U.S., Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, indicate that we have entered a new era of post-neoliberal politics, as some commentators are claiming? Is it a reactionary spasm presaging the system’s immanent collapse—not just the death throws of the free market, then, but of capitalism itself? Or is it just a new iteration of global capitalism?
The situation is further complicated by the fact that ideas about large destructive events often contain an element of fantasy--serving to reassure us it is indeed still possible to conceive of an end to capitalism, to offer just one example. (Nowhere is the latter more apparent today than in many theories of the Anthropocene.) Yet even if none of these large destructive mechanisms does represent a structural crisis capable of affecting the entire capitalist system, the question still arises: do any of them at least have the potential to be comparable to those Foucault identifies? And if they do, how likely is it that they too will be accompanied by large-scale social change? Suppose one of the technological, political, or environmental crises of our time--the Zika virus, to provide a still further example, which is being spread in Latin America and the Caribbean by mosquitos whose range is expanding as the climate heats up--does grow to become equivalent in its effects to those produced by the Industrial Revolution. (In the case of Zika, this could take the form of a world separated into different geographic zones: those free from extremes of disease and pollution in which it is safe for women to get pregnant and those that are not, the former being inhabited by the wealthy, the latter by the poor.) Imagine it does so even to the extent of producing the kind of future an accelerationist politics looks toward. In such a scenario, the gains of late capitalism and the particular technosocial innovations that have historically typified it are not reversed. Instead, they are reprogrammed beyond those capitalism’s “value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies” currently allow--until capitalism reaches a point where it has to either develop a host of more Commons-based, post-work, post-carbon practices, or self-combust via a process of “slow fragmentation towards primitivism, perpetual crisis, and planetary ecological collapse.” From this point of view, “the material platform of neoliberalism does not need to be destroyed. It needs to be repurposed towards common ends. The existing infrastructure is not a capitalist stage to be smashed, but a springboard to launch towards post-capitalism.” Yet what if that does happen? There is still no guarantee such a large destructive mechanism will coexist in our political structures with a moment of profound social transformation oriented toward the care of life. Neoliberal ubercapitalism winning out still further over welfare, public health, and medical assistance programs is as possible a future as any strengthening of the social, be it post-capitalist, neo-socialist, or liberal democratic in orientation. The Commons and a Universal Basic Income are both ideas that have neoliberal supporters, for instance. Granted, socialists see the Commons as an alternative to privatization, commodification and to corporate trade. But by the same token, for free marketeers the Commons represents an alternative to state regulation and centralized bureaucracy.
Yet Foucault is careful not to suggest in “The Political Technology of Individuals” there is a causal link that creates the “coincidence” by which “life insurance is connected with a death command:” that the one is the effect, the result, of the other. In that case our only hope would be to wait for the kind of special circumstances that are more or less comparable to those generated by a world war before something even approaching a 21st century equivalent to the 1870 Education Act or 1946 NHS Act could be introduced, let alone a form of society developed that goes beyond the all-pervasive algorithmic surveillance and control of the market and its metrics. (The quickening of climate change and the irreversible transformation of our bio- and geo-sphere, say, or the discovery and exploitation of a new world--the kind of thing that might result if we developed the ability to mine planets or asteroids, say.) So are there things we can do right here, right now, to affirmatively disrupt the disruptors of the for-profit sharing economy with a view to beginning the process of inventing a different, more caring future--not just for the university, the sharing economy, or even for post-industrial society, as I said in The Uberfication of the University, but for “individual life” too--while at the same time being aware that there is no certainty doing so will achieve a structural transformation, and that such changes will not end up simply being subsumed under the capitalist mode?