Technofeudalism: What Killed Capitalism
Imagine the following scene ... You are beamed into a town full of people going about their business, trading in gadgets, clothes, shoes, books, songs, games and movies. At first everything looks normal. Until you begin to notice something odd. It turns out all the shops, indeed every building, belongs to a chap called Jeff [Bezos]. What’s more, everyone walks down different streets, and sees different stores because everything is intermediated by … an algorithm that dances to Jeff’s tune.
Yanis Varoufakis became famous for standing up against European bankers during his brief, leather-jacketed tenure as finance minister in Greece’s ultimately disastrous Syriza-led coalition. In Technofeudalism, he identifies Big Tech as a new and qualitatively worse enemy. Jeff Bezos and his ilk, Varoufakis claims, enrich themselves not from profit but from “cloud rent” they extract from those accessing their digital fiefdoms.
The so-called “cloudalists” exploit the waged labour of “cloud proles” who toil in warehouses and computer assembly lines. They transform the rest of us into “cloud serfs”, freely generating the information on which our overlords depend each time we like a post, share a photo or otherwise go about our online lives. “Real power today,” Varoufakis says, “resides not with the owners of traditional capital such as machinery, buildings, railway and phone networks … They have become vassals in relation to a new class of feudal overlord, the owners of cloud capital.”
You might object that the owners of machinery, buildings and so on still seem to be doing alright for themselves, with Bezos himself assiduously constructing his brick-and-mortar fulfilment centres everywhere. You might also note that capital always meant a social relationship rather than the physical objects in Mr Fat’s factory. But, of course, Varoufakis knows all that, which makes his polemical exaggerations – “Under technofeudalism, we no longer own our minds. Every proletarian is turning into a cloud prole during working hours and a cloud serf the rest of the time” – so exasperating.
Technofeudalism’s framing device – Varoufakis writes it as a letter to his father, a communist turned steel factory executive – feels like a complete distraction: if we’ve truly entered a new social epoch, that’s surely everyone’s business, not a family conversation. The laboured metaphors – the international financial system features throughout as the “Global Minotaur” – don’t help much either.
The book is most interesting when it moves from the cod science fiction vignettes to discuss the rise of the digital economy in terms of the relationship between profit and rent, and speculates about what Washington’s seizure of funds belonging to Russia’s central bank means for Chinese financiers. Sadly, the genuine insights get obscured by the conventions of the airport bestseller, which more or less require celebrity authors to yell at clouds.
Bodley Head, 224pp, $36.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Technofeudalism: What Killed Capitalism".
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