- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
The power of tech and finance, alongside the growing sense that the system is ruled more by brazen predation than by good old-fashioned labor exploitation, has thinkers from the Marxist left all the way to the neoliberal and even neo-reactionary right convinced that we’ve left capitalism entirely and entered an era of neo-feudalism. In his New Left Review essay “Critique of Techno-Feudal Reason,” writer Evgeny Morozov argues that this bleak period that we’re living through is in fact still a thoroughly capitalist one.
Some scholars argue that capitalism is no longer the competitive and innovative force that secures surplus value through what appears in mystified form to be voluntarily contracted labor exploitation. Instead, they contend, capitalists increasingly rely on raw political power to coercively secure capital through everything from rents to cheap government-provided capital — a means of extracting the surplus that looks a lot more like feudalism. But Morozov argues that forms of political dispossession and expropriation, as well as coercive acts like rent terrorism, are central features of capitalism rather than aberrations or departures from it. Ultimately, Morozov writes, it’s only an overly narrow conception of what comprises capitalism and its rules of reproduction that might lead us to the erroneous conclusion that we’re entering something like neo-feudalism.
Evgeny Morozov has written several books and essays about technology and politics. He holds a PhD in the history of science from Harvard and is the founder of The Syllabus, a knowledge-curation service. His podcast The Santiago Boys, about the radical history of computing and cybernetic planning in Latin America, will launch later this year. Morozov sat down with Dan Denvir, host of the Jacobin podcast the Dig, to talk about the “neo-feudal thesis” and the endurance of capitalism. You can listen to the conversation here. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Modes of Production, Feudalist and Capitalist
What about the rise of digital technology has caused so many thinkers to believe that we’re exiting capitalism altogether? And where do other hallmarks of the neoliberal era, namely financialization and globalization, fit into this narrative?
There is this argument — on the Left mostly, but also on the Right — that says that capitalism is no longer what it used to be. Nobody’s saying that capitalism was perfect, but I think there’s been some agreement even among its critics, Marx of course being the foremost of them, that capitalism did result in innovation of some kind. By subjecting market participants to competition, it forced them to produce new practices, engage in new techniques of production, make new products, and to some extent move society forward — with some costs, of course. Some Marxists would tell you that it would be impossible to move to the next stage, socialism, without actually passing through capitalism first. We can bracket out all of that, but the underlying understanding of capitalism has traditionally been that this system fuels innovation.
Recently, a lot of people have been making this argument that maybe what we are looking at right now is a system that’s stagnating, that is dominated by rentiers, that has lost its innovative edge of some kind. They attribute that to many different dimensions of the global economy, some of them having to do with finance, and others with the fact that there is more and more money that has to be paid for intellectual property of various kinds in patents, trademarks, royalty fees, and so forth. Certain services like artificial intelligence have become central to how many companies operate. Some point out the dominance of the real estate sector. There are all sorts of trends and tendencies in the contemporary system that result in something other than innovation.
That results in a couple of very powerful people using all sorts of extra-economic means instead of traditional market competition, like relying on the power of law or relying on the fact that they have monopolized access to certain types of knowledges or data. They’re basically using that privileged access to make money without necessarily investing anything new in this innovative dynamic that has been associated with capitalism.
That’s the basic argument, but some people take it even further. They don’t say that this is just some kind of stagnation within capitalism, or some kind of a rentier turn within capitalism. They say it’s actually a return of feudalism. This new regime, it’s not just feudal, it’s actually techno-feudal, in the sense that technology plays a key role in enabling these new tendencies.
This debate on whether we’re entering a new feudal period and leaving capitalism behind rests in significant part on how we understand those two terms. And both concepts have been intensively discussed and fiercely debated in Marxism, particularly in the last sixty years or so.
So let’s start by defining feudalism and capitalism in Marxist terms, and also what Marx and various Marxists have identified as the key differences between these two modes of production.
Your question already contains an answer, because for Marxists, by and large, both feudalism and capitalism are modes of production. It’s not just some kind of a vague socioeconomic regime. It’s not something defined primarily by how much political or social rights you enjoy, of what kind. For Marxists the difference between feudalism and capitalism is primarily a difference in the mode of production. That’s one of the epistemic breaks that Marx makes. He basically theorizes this idea that social systems should be understood and compared based on this concept of the mode of production.
So if you look at feudalism, essentially we are talking about the way in which the system manages to generate and divide an economic surplus. And by and large, that’s what a mode of production is. This is maybe not the most orthodox of Marxist definitions, but we are essentially talking about the way in which surpluses are produced and divided. And then additional reflections, of course, could be made about how all of that relates to the broader philosophy of history of some kind.
This is where the exciting part in Marxism and in Marx comes out. Marx makes this argument that it’s possible that there are certain features within capitalism that would not allow us to develop all the innovative dynamics that germinate within it to the maximum, because of its social relations of production. Certain classes control certain technologies, and it’s essential to control certain means of production, as Marxists would put it. And because of that control, you cannot achieve the degree of social progress that you would expect of a given state of technology or of society. This is why socialism, and communism eventually as the ultimate mode of production, would be necessary.
But if you were to go back to feudalism as one of the earlier modes of production, you’re mostly talking about peasant economies in which peasants either control or have access to their own means of subsistence. By and large, we don’t even use the term means of production. We are talking mostly about means of subsistence. Peasants might have a field or some kind of a garden or other plot of land, and they work on that with some autonomy. Because of political arrangements, somebody comes periodically once a month or once a year and essentially expropriates or confiscates whatever surplus that the peasants might be producing and can part ways with. That doesn’t happen through some kind of backdoor, invisible arrangement. Nobody’s being tricked. It’s done by force.
There is, of course, a political system of power that shapes how that surplus is appropriated. There are all sorts of gradations within that system, and we don’t have to go into them, but essentially feudal lords, because of the political power they enjoy, also enjoy a certain degree of protection. There is no competition between them, and because of that they face very few incentives to actually innovate, to cut costs, to introduce new technologies or laborsaving techniques.
So from the Marxist point of view, very often the system results in some kind of social and economic stagnation. We can argue and debate about how the transition between feudalism and capitalism happens, but importantly for some theorists, and especially Robert Brenner, whom I discuss at length in the texts I’ve written, capitalism is marked by very different dynamics. It essentially pits what used to be feudal lords in competition with one another. They can no longer rely on confiscating surplus from the political subjects under their control. They have to pay a salary or wage for the subjects’ labor.
This incentivizes them to cut costs by essentially automating as much of that work as possible. So capitalism becomes this system that essentially systematizes the production of innovation. And this is how we account for immense advances in economic development over the past two centuries associated with industrialization.
So that would be the major difference for certain schools of Marxist thinkers. It’s really this emphasis on innovation as a structural feature of capitalist competition that comes very strongly in capitalism as compared to the feudalist system before.
The theory you described portrays a really hard-and-fast distinction between those two means of surplus extraction. How does that, in your view, lead some astray in their analysis of the present political-economic order?
First of all, I’m not a historian of feudalism by any means. I’m drawing on secondary literature. So all I know about the mechanisms and means of surplus extraction under feudalism I know from the work of marvelous historians of feudalism and capitalism. Maybe it’s easier to start with capitalism and then draw the distinctions of feudalism.
So in a traditional Marxist account, it’s labor that we have to analyze. And there is something very peculiar about labor as a commodity that accounts for this immense production and circulation of surplus value under the capitalist system. We probably don’t have to go and repeat everything that Marx says about exploitation and the way in which surplus value is generated in the work process. But essentially the takeaway from that Marxist analysis is that it makes labor a commodity, and labor is not like any other commodity. It’s not priced the way it should be priced.
If you look at the system structurally, you see that there are certain processes built into it that result in labor being exploited, and value essentially flowing from labor to capital, or from workers to those who own the means of production. But that’s not happening explicitly. And nobody is forcing you. Nobody is beating you up, at least under properly working capitalism. The ideal type of capitalism is clean. That’s not to say it doesn’t have to rely on police power, or it doesn’t have to rely on people starving. Even in completely perfect, ideal conditions, the way the capitalist system works is that you go and sell your labor and somehow still as a laborer you are being shortchanged. The bottom line is that all of that happens invisibly, and it’s all legal. It’s all clean.
In feudalism, it’s the opposite. The surplus extraction happens quite visibly, so nobody is in denial about it. You would go and harvest and work in your field, and then somebody would come at the end of the month or year and take away whatever’s left that you have not consumed to reproduce yourself. And again, that will happen in a much more violent, explicit, visible way. Of course, it could be justified through all sorts of means, by religious traditions, by appeals to ideology. There are all sorts of ways to justify why that needs to happen, so it doesn’t have to be violent all the time. But what backs it up is essentially force.
Again, I’m not saying that capitalism functions without the state, where there is no force making up the contract, but in capitalism it is supposed to happen in a much cleaner way. The workers are supposed to be convinced that they’re not being screwed.
You argue that some Marxists believe that we’ve returned to feudalism because of all this raw political power exercised in recent years and decades to redistribute wealth to the capitalist class: in other words, brazen exercises of expropriation rather than this ideal type of clean exploitation.
And you write that this approach and these theorists who increasingly focus on political expropriation see
the capitalist system as driven solely by its internal dynamics of competition and exploitation, with political expropriation lying firmly outside its boundaries. On this reading, capital accumulation is driven solely by ‘clean’, economic means of surplus extraction. The existence of extraneous, expropriation-enabling processes — violence, racism, dispossession, carbonization — is not denied, but they should be analytically bracketed out as non-capitalist extras; they may have abetted particular capitalists in their individual efforts to appropriate surplus value, but they stand outside the process of capitalist accumulation as such.
What particular currents of Marxist thought have historically advanced this analysis that you just summarized? And what are the examples of political expropriation that they have in mind? And then finally, how does that tradition, in your view, leave Marxists unprepared to comprehend the changes that we’re currently seeing in the political economic order today?
This was and remains the dominant strand and the dominant interpretation within Marxism. So if you really look at orthodox Marxists — people who really go and study Capital and treat it as their primary text, meaning they don’t do deviations into the Eighteenth Brumaire or into the Grundrisse or into all of the many other supplementary texts by Marx and Engels — they would still hold on to this position that essentially capitalism is a system that works through and expands through competition, and that essentially everything else that happens does so in order for capitalism to exploit labor more efficiently and effectively, and get more of the labor surplus.
A lot of Marxists that are heterodox would also tacitly subscribe to that, even though they would deepen the analysis a little bit. For example, we’ve seen a lot of emphasis in the last few decades on the importance of social reproduction. But for many of those theorists, social reproduction itself is almost the central part of capitalism. They analyze what happens outside of the proverbial factory, but with the view of explaining how all this other stuff like women’s work and the family essentially makes capital and capitalism in the factory — in the actual sphere of production — a little bit more productive and effective.
So I would say this was and remains the mainstream view for Marxists. Anybody who challenges that view will be probably excommunicated and treated as a post-Marxist at best, as a neo-Marxist potentially, and as a non-Marxist also quite likely.
Some people I cite in the piece, like Nancy Fraser for example, have tried to show how one can stay within the Marxist tradition and still be faithful to this dialectical process, an interaction between exploitation — which is the primary dynamic of capitalism, the way orthodox Marxists see it — and appropriation, which for most Marxists functions purely to enable exploitation. But we don’t really know what it would mean for Marxists to accept both of those dynamics as playing an equally important role in the constitution of capitalism, as opposed to appropriation being secondary to the exploitation of labor, which they would see as the still the primary dynamic.
Primitive Accumulation, the Global South, and Dispossession
The other option, analytically messier but more intuitively convincing, is to acknowledge that capitalism — at least the historical capitalism that we know, not the purist capitalism of abstract models — is unthinkable without all those extraneous processes. One doesn’t have to deny the centrality of exploitation to the capitalist system to see how racism or patriarchy has helped to create the conditions of its possibility. Would the capitalist system in the Global North have developed as it did if cheap resources had not been methodically expropriated from the Global South?
This analysis has historically been one made by many, but above all by world-systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein. What do such theorists contribute to Marxism? And why has it been their study of capitalism as a geographically uneven historical and global process that led them to these particular insights?
It depends on the vantage point from which this analysis is written. For a lot of world-systems theorists, when they were doing that analysis in the late 1960s or early 1970s, they saw themselves as affiliated to some extent with the efforts of the nonaligned movement, made up of countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia — countries that in one way or another were on the periphery of the world system and not at its core, which is where most of the analysis of Marx and subsequent Marxists had focused before.
Most of this theorization of capitalism happened in the United Kingdom. This is what Marx analyzes. He analyzes the industrialization process there and how capitalism develops, and he draws a lot of insights. But the problem is that those insights of nineteenth-century and eighteenth-century Britain, they’re very hard to apply to twentieth-century Brazil or Chile or Vietnam.
This is where people like Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, and Giovanni Arrighi start to point out that there are huge gaps in the account that traditional Marxism gives you. They try to think about capitalist development from the perspective of the periphery and not the core. They are not just making this analysis because they participate in academic debates (though of course many of them do), but also because they are involved with many socialist and left-leaning governments in those countries, which was still possible before the neoliberal era.
They are trying to think about it from a very practical perspective: Who are your allies? If you really need to think about some kind of alternative to capitalist development, would it be the bourgeoisie locally and nationally, because you need to first have a capitalist revolution in your country before you can have a socialist one? Or are the bourgeoisie already fully integrated into the world capitalist system, with their own way of getting by, and so to be essentially discarded as some kind of a revolutionary force?
So a lot of these questions and critiques of traditional Marxism and its understanding of feudalism and capitalism come from very practical concerns. These concerns are not necessarily raised by the workers’ movement in England or France or Germany or for that matter the United States, which is where the Marxist thinkers in the core of the capitalist system have traditionally generated the ideas from.
For ten or fifteen years, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, all these countries were told, including by the US government, that they have to industrialize and they have to build their own industry. Of course they tried to do that, but then they discovered that just industrializing doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have your own industry to build capital goods. If you have to import all your capital goods from abroad, if you have to pay for patents, if you have to pay for royalty fees, if you have to pay for capital and for many other things, you essentially end up in a dependent relationship. And because of this dependent relationship, money keeps on flowing to those who own capital — and not just to owners. Of course the dominant groups in the center in North America and in Western Europe profit from these underdeveloped countries, but it even goes to labor.
One of the arguments that a lot of these thinkers in Latin America made at the time was that because trade unions are so much stronger in the Global North, every time there is a crisis and a downturn, the labor movement in the North doesn’t abandon its gains, but rather holds onto them. And the workers in the Global South see their wages decline and suffer. So for them, even the workers in the Global North would be part of some kind of rentier class, which wasn’t really a huge issue. They were not trying to sow some kind of a discord between the Global North labor movement and workers in the Global South. The point is that they understood rentierism as a dynamic that was already built into the global capitalist system.
From a traditional or classical Marxist point of view, proponents of structuralism and dependency theory in Latin America were not properly Marxist, because they were talking about countries exploiting each other. There were all kinds of intricate arguments, but ultimately, it was said that this is not a Marxist theory, if by a Marxist theory we mean a theory that puts the exploitation of labor at its core. You cannot start with the exploitation of labor as such and arrive directly at the theory of international exploitation of one country by another, which is precisely what dependency theory and structuralism were arguing.
People on the Marxist side of this debate are to some extent justified in saying that whatever Wallerstein or Gunder Frank say about Marxism is not valid within the proper Marxist theoretical edifice. But what they fail to notice is that these people are not trying to reflect on Marxism. They’re trying to reflect on the alternative paths of development for Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and so forth. And Marxism was one of the instruments they used. But the point was not to produce the most definitive account of what Marxists should think like.
Meanwhile orthodox corners tend to police their territory and essentially say, “No, we don’t want that in the history books. Don’t pollute our analytical frameworks, because if you do, we’ll lose sight of what makes capitalism tick. And if we lose sight of what makes capitalism tick, we’ll never build the socialism we want, with even better dynamics that produce innovation.”
This brings us to the conversation over how capitalism operates today, and particularly these two historical debates over the transition from feudalism to capitalism. First is the Dobb-Sweezy debate, which began in the 1940s, and second is the Brenner debate of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Both debates were in part, you write, about “the centrality of ‘primitive accumulation’ to the origins, as well as subsequent developments, of capitalism.” First, what is primitive accumulation? And then, what was at stake in these debates over determining its role in capitalism, both historically and in an ongoing manner?
Again, it’s a very contentious subject among Marxist and near-Marxists or the Marxist-family theorists. Some of that has to do with inconsistency that one finds in Marx’s own texts about what primitive accumulation is and what role it had played. That’s a debate that continues to this day, with close readings of Marx and debates over footnotes and secondary sources. I don’t see myself as a Marxologist of any kind. I ventured into that debate mostly because I thought I needed to contextualize the current discussion.
My understanding, having spent some time in that universe as a tourist as opposed to a full-time resident, is that essentially the debate is as follows. You have some people reading Marx to be saying that before capitalism acquires this innovative dynamic whereby competition forces capitalists to cut costs and invent new things, capitalists have to engage in a certain initial, much messier, and more violent process of capital accumulation. That required a very different set of tools, techniques, and means, if you will. And that was kind of like feudalism. You wouldn’t even recognize it from feudalism if it did not lead to this much cleaner, systematic, innovative dynamic that doesn’t need to be violent.
Essentially a miracle happens. I mean, of course, there are ways in which Marxists will tell you how exactly that happens, but it’s essentially a story of a miracle where the traditional bloody, violent feudal dynamics eventually give rise to this proper, non-primitive, much more sophisticated accumulation.
So you can think about enclosures of land and property. That is initially very violent, and there are a lot of people who are unhappy about it. But eventually everybody accepts that. And you start having, in some cases, market players trade the rights to land, to means of production, to ideas, and everything becomes a commodity of some kind. And we know that commodities are traded in the market, and it’s so very clean and proper.
I must say that of course Marx wrote about these things in German, and often when he was referring to concepts like primitive accumulation, it was actually discussing the work of other people, including Adam Smith. Occasionally you’ll see terms like “so-called” attached to the term primitive accumulation. So there is also some debate as to whether Marx actually gave that much primacy and importance to this term to begin with.
But the alternative reading of primitive accumulation would be to say that Marx did not actually mean to delineate it as some kind of a historical stage, after which capitalism was supposed to work frictionless and perfectly in a clean way without recourse to violence. And that this secondary dynamic, where you have to rely on force and on expropriation or appropriation of some kind, is ongoing. So it did not end centuries ago, it’s still with us. Maybe it’s less visible. Maybe we don’t recognize it as capitalism proper. But it’s there and essentially made the central counterpart, if you will, to the widely recognizable, exploitation-driven dynamic of accumulation.
I’ll point out the two Marx quotes that, while not necessarily contradictory, point in different interpretive directions. On the one hand he wrote:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.
But on the other hand he wrote: “The veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.” This suggests a more permanent relationship between expropriation in the periphery and exploitation in the core. And you could make that not only a matter of global core versus periphery, but you could map that onto various levels and scales of core and periphery, you know, both from within a nation to within a metropolitan area.
Some thinkers like David Harvey introduce yet another actor into the scene, so to speak. And they point to neoliberalism, which they then define as something that is marked by the rise of “accumulation by dispossession.” For Harvey, to some extent, it’s an elegant and radical way of saying that a primitive accumulation is ongoing. But having read his Marx really well, he grasps that the primary dynamic of capitalism is that of innovation. Whatever its costs are, innovation is there, and most Marxists will recognize it as such.
Neoliberalism is a rather ill-defined concept that you never encounter in Marx’s works. As such, it comes to perform this very interesting function, which allows many academics and followers of Harvey to essentially recognize that there is this redistributive dynamic inside the capitalist system that results in the poor having their money or resources or income channeled to the rich, but not through exploitation. It happens through other means. It happens through rent, austerity, intellectual property. If you go through some of Harvey’s early books, he gives you very long lists of every single technique of making money in the world at the time, many of which do not rely on classical exploitation of labor and the conditions of wage labor in some factory.
I think it allows a lot of academics to operate and talk about capitalism and some of the perverse dynamics that they see in it — mostly from the perspective of the Global North, because the Global South has its own way to account for it through dependency theory and similar frameworks. So there are certain strands of leftist Marxist and neo-Marxist academia in the Global North that essentially account for this without having to bring in a term like neo-feudalism or techno-feudalism, because neoliberalism performs that function.
You can essentially blame all the lack of dynamism and innovation that you would normally associate with a capitalist system on neoliberalism. It’s a bizarre argument, but it’s also not bizarre because ultimately it does what Marx does in his own work: it pays hidden compliments to capitalism as this extremely dynamic system that revolutionizes social relations and generates innovation but can’t take it to the next level, which requires a different mode of production, namely socialism.
By putting all this blame on neoliberalism, it kind of gives this illusion that once we move into a post-neoliberal era of some kind, maybe we’ll recover capitalism, and maybe from there also move to socialism. I don’t think that a lot of people who use it in relation to dispossession see these implications necessarily. But if you want to be theoretically and logically coherent, I think you must see that essentially you are subscribing to a relatively charitable view of capitalism as a progressive, innovative social system that just runs into certain limits because of class relations.
This emphasis on what is new about capitalism has sort of overshadowed what’s the same about capitalism. And so we hear neoliberalism a lot more than we just hear plain old capitalism.
I think it’s just so useful to be thinking about this issue while keeping the Global South and this prehistory of dependency theory and structuralism in mind. Because if you really put them on your intellectual map, then the account of neoliberalism that Harvey gives — starting in New York in the 1970s with the fiscal crisis and then Chile and everything else — is very hard to actually reconcile with the fact that Latin American economists would already tell you that the global capitalist system has rentier-like redistributive dispossession dynamics in the 1950s and 1960s, way before the Chicago Boys arrive in Chile and neoliberalism begins.
The reason why they have to arrive in Chile is because Salvador Allende wants to get Chile away from the path it’s on. But it’s on the capitalist path, not the neoliberal path. And it’s within capitalism itself, from the perspective of the Global South, that you have these very bizarre, peculiar dynamics that you cannot describe if you just use Marxist philosophy of history and modes of production and nothing else.
You argue that when scholars don’t account for the insights of, say, world-systems theorists, and don’t leave enough room for primitive accumulation or expropriation in their definition of capitalism, that that leaves these analysts vulnerable — in the face of brazen uses of state power after the 2008 financial crisis, or again during the pandemic to redistribute wealth to a capitalist class and stabilize the system — to believing that we no longer live under capitalism at all.
And you argue that in doing so, Brenner has ironically converged with Harvey’s analysis of accumulation by dispossession having become the dominant form of capitalist accumulation. That’s ironic, you write, because Brenner was initially a staunch critic of Harvey, precisely on the grounds that Harvey overemphasized expropriation over exploitation as the means for securing the surplus under capitalism.
Brenner wrote a very critical review of one of Harvey’s books on imperialism, in which he said that a concept like accumulation by dispossession makes very little sense. But faced with the evidence that Brenner himself has been looking at with regards to the US economy, it’s very hard for him to reach a conclusion other than that this dynamic of innovation is not to be seen to the same extent that you would see in, I don’t know, seventeenth-century England. But again, a lot of it comes from having a very partial view of the market, and a very partial view of what constitutes innovation and what role the technology companies and big tech and digital platforms play in all of this.
You can look at absolute investment figures. There are ways in which you can measure how much capital is being invested in capital goods, and how much of it is just consumed in luxury goods. And there are all sorts of ways in which you can get an estimate of what capitalists think about the future and how likely they are to remain capitalists. So you can make certain guesses and projections from that. But I argue that this debate, as it has been carried out in the Global North, has lost sight of technology, which wasn’t at all the case with dependency theory and with structuralism.
Because of their own peculiar industrialization needs, they knew that if you are buying some advanced tractor or some advanced mining equipment from the United States, you will have to pay fees for using it. You won’t be able to just build it in-house, because then you’ll need to pay royalty fees and pay for trademarks. So technology was very present in the minds of the people theorizing these issues from the Global South. But not in the Global North, which makes it very hard to make sense of what Google, Facebook, and Amazon are doing.
Technology, Capitalism, and Alternative Futures
A lot of the literature in the debate about capitalism today and the role of technology focuses specifically on the rents extracted by new tech conglomerates. But technology companies spend a lot of money on research and development, too — classic forms of investment that would indicate that they’re behaving like a typical capitalist firm. You write that if the tech giants
really are lazy rentiers who are ripping everyone off by exploiting intellectual-property rights and network effects — why do they invest so much money in what can only be described as production of some kind? What kind of rentiers do that? Alphabet’s R&D spending in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 was $16.6 billion, $21.4 billion, $26 billion and $27.5 billion respectively. Does that not count as ‘lifting a finger’?
And then you also note that Amazon alone employs more people than the entire US residential construction industry. You observe that Google, Amazon, and Facebook require a vast physical infrastructure. How does all that good old-fashioned materiality get mystified? Why is it important to understand Google not merely, or even primarily, as a landlord and more as a traditional capitalist firm? And why, when theorists of neo-feudalism look at some of these R&D budgets or vast physical infrastructure, are they so unmoved?
I don’t think that there is a very strong account of the firm or the corporation in traditional Marxist theory. I mean, Marxism is not supposed to be a theory of the firm, and it doesn’t really give you a set of criteria for differentiating some firms that are capitalist from other actors that are feudal. For Marx and Marxism, of course, it’s the unit of analysis, it’s capital, it’s a social relation. It’s not necessarily this firm or that firm. So even to speak of firms as being feudal or capitalist in the orthodox tradition is a bit strange.
Most of the attribution that happens now flows first from identifying the dominant mode of production, which would be the capitalist or feudalist. And then from there you make the attribution and say that the main actors in this mode of production have no choice but to be either feudal, if they are talking about feudalism, or capitalist, in the case of capitalism. If you start from a very vulgar, banal characterization of the current era as techno-feudal, then of course you have to assume that its main voices or its main actors or enablers must themselves be somehow feudal.
And what are the conclusions that can be draw from that? That some people and companies have managed to grab some important chunk of the general intellect for themselves. They have managed to enact some kind of information enclosure around it, which is behaving the way a monopoly would behave. And they’re just resting on their laurels. They’re not investing into anything. They just there for the rents.
One of the things I try to do in my essay is show the numbers and the behavior of the firms as firms. If you look at the technology sector, it just doesn’t conform to the stereotype that you would expect from the main representatives of this new feudal economy. They look much more like representatives of capitalism.
There is, of course, a less vulgar version of the techno-feudalist argument: the version of Cédric Durand, the French Marxist economist and thinker, who has a more nuanced take on it. He doesn’t subscribe to this vulgar kind of equation between a mode of production and firms. He almost arrives at this middle ground where the firms can be kind of capitalist and invest and expand and have all sorts of behaviors you would associate with the typical capitalist firm — but at the same time, the net result of the activities on the economy is to some extent equivalent to what you would expect from feudal actors or from it being a feudal economy. So essentially it’s a huge tax on innovation, and overall the dynamic is not favorable to the kind of accumulation sort of innovation that theorists like Brenner associated with capitalism.
Why do people see rentierism everywhere and then contend that this is the end of capitalism? Why is monopolization leading to a decline or in some cases the elimination of competition deemed to be something new about capitalism? Monopoly, of course, has a very long history in capitalism. Lenin and others famously identified monopoly capital as leading to World War I.
I don’t think that necessarily their argument is that it’s novel. But I think the reason why the argument is so popular has to do with the fact that at the end of the day, it’s a moral critique. Interestingly it’s one we would normally expect from the Right rather than from the Left, in that it basically tells these former capitalists that they need to work harder, that they need to stop resting on their laurels and become the good old capitalists they used to be.
I understand this critique coming from the neoliberal right and from the people who do love capitalism, but it’s a very strange position for the Left to take. And my hunch is that a lot of it masks the inability to actually make sense of contemporary capitalism and to make any kind of propositions in terms of what the actual agenda of the Left should be for a different system, for a different mode of production, for different societies.
So we end up essentially saying that we can maybe rebuild some kind of welfare capitalism that we once had, and we just need to make sure that capitalists go back to being the responsible actors that they once were. And maybe once we get that going, we will actually return to the good old days.
The left neo-feudalist argument that you take the most seriously, as you mentioned earlier, is that put forward by Durand. Do you disagree with Durand that capitalism has changed in important ways over the past half century of neoliberalism and financialization? Or do you simply disagree with his argument that these changes mean that we’re no longer living under capitalism?
Before I start, let me try to offer my critique of this more orthodox Marxist obsession with production and making sure that production happens at all costs by channeling finance, technology, and everything else into it. I do think that Marxism, as a body of thought, has a certain factory bias, and this has to do with the conditions under which Marxism was generated.
It was generated in a certain setting in England and under certain conditions. And there is this assumption when you think about capitalism as accumulation via innovation, as Brenner calls it, that the only place where you can have innovation at scale is inside the traditional production process of a factory. It’s the default assumption that Marxists make. And then the entire question becomes about whether our factories and capitalist enterprises are really producing and innovating, whether our technology system is supporting them by making it easier to invest into capital goods or make capital goods, and whether our financial system is there to serve the needs of expanding production and of buying new capital goods.
It’s coherent, but only if you think that there is no other possible way for large-scale transformative innovation to occur in society. That was, in fact, the case in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Is it the case in the twenty-first century? I’m not so sure. And this is where I think even the Italian autonomists got way ahead of most orthodox Marxists by pointing out that a lot of truly transformative learning processes, innovative processes, and discovery processes that have happened in society have come from the bottom up, from collaboration. There is more to life than just producing things in a factory.
If you want to build a theory about how to make airplanes or how to cure COVID, clearly you’re not going to say, “By talking to my neighborhood buddies, I’m going to invent a COVID vaccine.” So Marx has a point for certain types of inventions and innovations. But I think it shouldn’t completely blind us to the fact that technology is there, artificial intelligence is there, cloud computing is there, quantum computing is there. How would our process of creation, innovation, and discovery look if we actually assumed that there is more to generating new knowledge than just inventing them in factory settings, whether the factory is a communist, socialist, or capitalist one?
With some notable exceptions, very few Marxist theorists have consistently thought about this problem. They’ve ignored it, because it doesn’t have to do with production. It doesn’t have to do with conveyor belts, making cars. You read Brenner and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about cars, and it’s about cars because historically it’s been about cars. This is what happens to Japan. This is what happens to Germany. That’s what happens to South Korea. And we basically want to make sure that we can have this twenty-first-century socialism built with the 1950s car industry in mind. I just find it so regressive. I don’t want to say reactionary, but to me it’s a lost opportunity. Clearly the resources are there, it’s just that there are no Marxists thinking about how to use them for something other than making cars in a 1950s factory.
So when I criticize somebody like Durand, I approach it from this perspective, even though I don’t make it explicit in the essay. I approach it partly from this critique that maybe our theory of socialism as a kind of sustained effort of generating innovation differently is already so biased by capitalist dynamics that we are looking in the wrong places.
Now, if we put that aside, then I do agree with Durand, by and large, that there are certain changes that have occurred in the global economy over the last thirty or forty years that may have resulted in certain stagnating tendencies — partly because of the shift of power to the financial sector, partly because of the fact that the financial sector is not as incentivized to engage in the kind of innovation-friendly accumulation that a theory of industrial capitalism suggests. I am very much on board with all of that.
The reason why I thought it was worth bringing Durand’s account of the global financial industry, and the global economy from the financial perspective, into the picture is because his account of the digital industry and of Silicon Valley essentially seems to be an extension and replication of the neo-feudalist argument, only now he is looking at digital platforms and not financial ones. And there is very little that he sees in terms of this redeeming innovation-friendly dynamic. But he did kind of acknowledge what’s possible in the financial sphere when we shift to technology. By and large, the situation is grim. It’s really full-blown feudalism of some kind.
Where does Brenner’s view fit in here, that the “long-term stagnation of the US economy in conditions of global manufacturing over-capacity has led powerful elements of the American ruling class to abandon their interest in productive investment and turn instead to the upward redistribution of wealth by political means.”
You mentioned that you were sympathetic to Durand’s argument around stagnation. Do you agree that the root of that stagnation is in part in some sort of global manufacturing overcapacity?
I think these accounts are not mutually exclusive. So you have the Brennerian account emphasizing overcapacity and all of the crisis that happens because of the structural dynamics built into the global economy. There is always a new challenger, which then comes in and makes your investments in productive capacity obsolete because it can produce cheaper. This is an internal feature of the capitalist economy for Brenner.
You can reconcile it with a more historical account of the last thirty, forty, or fifty years and argue it’s a historical feature of the capitalist system, and thinkers like Joanna Regier would argue precisely that. It’s just that we move in long cycles, and it takes three hundred years for that stage of financialization to settle. And it’s inevitable, just like it’s inevitable that your car manufacturing capacity will become obsolete once your neighbor develops it with better and cheaper technologies.
So you can reconcile the two. In defense of Brenner and people who follow his approach, you can see that ultimately he’s trying to explain the laws of motion, as he would put it, of the capitalist system. And it’s all correct to some extent. Some people actually argue that it doesn’t account enough for labor, and the way that labor contests all this and moves across borders to produce cheaper and faster and more efficiently. But that’s not the problem I identify in my account.
My problem with that account is that you can be a fantastic analyst of all these decisions to reallocate capital across borders, seeking more efficient and more profitable investment opportunities, and it still wouldn’t give you any good idea what another system and another mode of production should be like other than just saying, Well, we’ll now run our global car industry under socialism in a more efficient and rational manner. Because for a lot of socialists and Marxists, that’s what you want. You want to make sure that you run everything in a way that is less turbulent, and you make sure that there is less turbulence by planning for a rational deployment of resources.
I am not saying that that’s all that follows from Brenner. But as a horizon, that just seems very little to me, and maybe it’s not really even what we should be insisting on. It’s great as an analysis of the contemporary conjuncture. I’m not denying that at all. But it just fails to excite, and it fails to excite precisely because it has no use for more information technology other than just this supporting role for making cars or flying cars or whatever the next cool thing will be then.
As long as you cannot imagine a way of generating creativity, innovation, and discovery out of the stuff of everyday life and not just of working in the factory, I think you are not doing Marxism and socialism properly. I know a lot of Marxists would disagree with me, and they would say that this is just all frivolous thinking about castles in the air. But alas, I guess I’m still not entirely convinced that making sure that our socialist car production is more efficient than under capitalism is necessarily a good deployment of our cognitive and political resources.
You write that we finally need to resolve the Brenner debate, and that to do so we need to theorize capitalism so that forms of dispossession, expropriation, and rent figure not just as things that are exceptional to capitalism, but rather as central to its real historical operation.
You write that Fraser has among the best resolutions on offer, and also that Jason Moore, a student of Wallerstein and Arrighi,
may have formulated the new consensus when he wrote that ‘capitalism thrives when islands of commodity production and exchange can appropriate oceans of potentially Cheap Natures — outside the circuit of capital but essential to its operation.’ This holds, of course, not only for Cheap Natures — there are many other activities and processes to appropriate — so these ‘oceans’ are broader than Moore suggests.
Why is it that analyzing the relationship between capitalism and nature, in particular, provides such a powerful tool to understand the system as a whole and to figure out what to do about it?
Here ultimately is the battle for defining what capitalism is, and how extensive and historical and massive the definition is allowed to be. And as a byproduct of this mission, we also have to start asking questions like: Why are we even doing this exercise? Is it because we expect some concrete, specific change and intervention to come forward? Maybe new configurations of social actors, maybe new interpretations of innovation? Or do we want this so that we can deploy the older blocks and forces and theories in a more effective manner, but against new targets?
I think this is an unresolved tension inside Marxism or leftism generally. Ultimately, given the struggles by various social movements and the fact of climate catastrophe, we are paying more attention to intellectual voices coming from the Global South. We are beginning to understand that maybe their problems need to be understood with frameworks that go beyond and transcend the conventional Marxist frameworks without abandoning them, but maybe mixing them with something else.
The aggregation of all of these factors, I think, has made the more orthodox Brennerian position very hard to defend. Because it basically prevents you from seeking the kind of alliances that are necessary, and from understanding what is going on in parts of the world that you have not thought about integrating in your struggles previously. It prevents you from doing that, and it prevents you from new sorts of claims about social injustice and dispossession. It prevents you from having an actually proper historical account of how capitalism developed differently in different parts of the world, and how those differences and the exploitation of these differences was actually constitutive of the current world system.
Without having this more enriched view of the world system and of the global economy, how are we supposed to have a proper evaluation of the progressive or reactionary force of tech entrepreneurs? Are they the harbingers of progress or are they the harbingers of reaction? Who are these people? You cannot answer these questions within just the national context. You need the international historical context for that, and you need to understand all the interconnections to the digital sector, to energy, to raw materials, to extractivism of all sorts of foodstuffs and whatnot.
This is where I just think it’s clear that we’re not going to resolve the Brenner debate in a way that would give us a framework that will be as clean and as analytically efficient as the Brenner one. Clearly, that’s not what Wallerstein and others were aiming at, and that’s why they define their own system as historical capitalism, whether or not the traditional Brennerian objections against that view hold. Brenner, just to remind the listeners who may not have read those exchanges of the 1970s, accused Wallerstein of engaging in neo-Smithian perversions.
At the end of the day, should it matter to people who are generally concerned with the emancipation of the Global South, with social movements of reversing extractivism, whether or not we are leaning on frameworks that give us an accurate understanding of what’s going on — or whether we remain pure and faithful to one that doesn’t? I’m not convinced that winning theoretical debates through purity counts much.
The fact that we keep enforcing strict borders about what counts as leftist, to say nothing of what counts as Marxism, I just find a bit unproductive. Naturally and logically, it seems to me that we should let these thousand flowers bloom. The question is whether to derive a single theory from it. And I hate to sound too pessimistic, but I’m not sure that one new theory is going to resolve our issues.