A brief thought on the futures of capitalism


The story has been retold again and again: the passageway into the Control Society was marked first and foremost by the shift from an industrial-based capitalism to one dominated by the complexities of financial markets, a shift itself driven by a remarkable coalescence of micropolitical exodus, systemic crisis in Keynesian-Fordist governance, and the rise of cybernetic computational technology. This financial turn, one that is communicative and semiotic in nature, triggers a reformulation of the basic structures of capitalism’s organization: as a multiplicity of new vantage points to view the market arose, each focusing on a different aspect of its shifts and complication, organization decentralized and replaced hierarchical command chains with connected yet functionally autonomous knowledge networks. Further mutations to network formations came with the dispersal of production across the globe, requiring the new technological developments to be put to use to coordinate the actions of a truly transnational system that operated beyond the traditional boundaries and binaries of the previously hegemonic state blocs.

In the developed world, this all meant that the logic of capitalist accumulation had to shift from pure labor itself to consumption; tracking of the reverberations from consumptive cycles move rapidly upward through data collecting and processing chains, reaching their culmination in the dances of the stock market captured on the computer screens of the traders and bankers in the world’s financial districts. What these individuals are seeing on these screens is essentially the techno-biological vital signs of a living creature that is composed of each and every one of us, a living creature whose breaths and heart beats are semiotic registers of our own captured desires externalized in the visceral experience of being immersed in a modeled and controlled consumer marketplace. The never-ending spectacle of consumption is the grand mediator of our social life, the DNA of our productions of subjectivity; thus the global organism of market is a reflection of who we are rendered into a purely machinic array of information signs. Our bodies disappear and then are re-actualized in torrents of data, and Foucault’s panopticonic utopia dissolves into a state where every movement is believed to be calculable and predictable.

Like its Keynesian predecessor, financial capitalism is wrought with crisis, yet there are no signs that we are going to hit the reset and go back to an earlier stage of capitalism or advance to a new machinery of exploitation. Instead, against all logic, there is a global effort to instead accelerate the neoliberal form, particularly in the ongoing rounds of austerity that continually erode any idea of a public sphere. Still, technology continues to undergo its own rapid and unpredictable mutations, and these will alter the path that this acceleration will follow. One of these is what the Economist is calling the “Third Industrial Revolution,” at the heart of which is the 3D printer. A design model on a computer can now be used to manufacture an item without ever having to grace the factory’s floor, or even enter into an engagement with the corporation that owns the factory. With this advancement, the supply chain that is so critical for capitalism as we currently understand it is thrown into disarray as the gulf between material and immaterial labor is eliminated. “None of this makes sense,” writes the Economist, and it is true: there still exists a diminishing middle class, clinging to the jobs provided by the manufacturing sector, that are undoubtedly in for turbulent times as this technology spreads. At the same time, there is also the manufacturing corporations and the larger corporations that own these that are facing equally stormy weather.


3D printer

As for the financial sector, their own future may look very different. Despite a move towards an interdisciplinary space where economics rubs shoulders with sociology, psychology and speculative chaos theory, the cybernetic technology that gives the traders and banker the ability to watch the fluctuations of the transnational mediated subjectivity is still very classical computational technology. The flow of data, the streams of tickers and shifting tables, charts and digitalized movement is constantly updating, changing minute to minute, second to second. Yet on the horizon is the ‘beyond’ of these information machines: the quantum computer. Basic computers as we have now operate in basic binary logic; simple tasks occur in rapid series. A quantum computer, on the other hand, does not to follow the paths of binaries built of ones and zeroes. Instead, it will employ “qubits” which, following the strange logic of quantum theory, can exist simultaneously in multiple states. It works by encapsulating the ones and zeroes and moving past them, allowing an exponentially higher speed of calculation – millions upon millions of potentials of any situation can be juggled and analyzed all at once. The importance of this is clear to anyone in finance working on the modelization of markets: the computer can sort through the sheer chaos of contemporary capitalism in ways that classical computers never could. Granted, it is still impossible to predict the future with any kind of computer, real or theoretical, and surveying the market still doesn’t provide insight into those little bits of subjectivity that evade statistical logging or control.


Quantum computer

We’ll soon see the proliferation of both of these machines (though the 3D printer is far more immediate than the quantum computer), and a great many more that deserve in depth scrutiny. As we analyze our present and past, we must continue to keep one eye squarely on the future and ask what these things mean for all of us.

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14 Responses to A brief thought on the futures of capitalism

  1. noir-realism says:

    What your really saying is that technology change has a lot more impact within capitalist culture than most economists would have us believe, they still want their mathematical precision and Keynesianism to rue the day when in fact it is invention and innovation that still breed surprise and transformation in the material realms. Ah those immaterialists are defeated again… by their own incorporeal ideas made real!

    • edmundberger says:

      I think that the common outlook on technology (and this applies to doctrinaire Marxists as much as it does the neoliberalists) falls under the auspices of economic change, while it seems that its precisely the opposite. The 3D printer is just the tip of the iceberg – the Economist gives a litany of new things, such as the replace of steel with light-weight carbon fiber, which is both practical and cheaper. I recently listened to a podcast by a guy from Wired where he talks about the coming combustion when cheap materials and 3D printers will join forces with open source information on the internet like schematics; the production of electronic technology will become even more despecialized and removed from the factory processes. Of course, capitalism has that tricky little process of utilizing the state to rework its inconsistencies with technology – just look at the crackdown on P2Pers!

      While there could be a cataclysmic shift in the logic of consumption and production, I do wonder what this would mean for finance – what new areas will they find to colonize? Plus, the possibilities in quantum computer could give them a way to process far more data than they do now at much higher speeds.

    • edmundberger says:

      This is interesting! I was just reading an article last night discussing the shifts in design – the move from “hand-craft” to “service-craft,” and how it constitutes a shift from material labor to a communication-based immaterial labor, i.e reflecting the greater changes in capital logic. The article went on to argue that design craft needs a new language to understand this environment, and the language the authors proposed was second-order cybernetic theory… I’ll have to dig it up again

    • arranjames says:

      I was just talking to a friend about the emergence of a new artisan class. He was worried that this is really not sustainable. Any organisation of production based on class just couldn’t provide an adequate way of organising for 7 billion primates.

  2. arranjames says:

    This all just makes me more certain that someone like Paul Virilio becomes key to understanding the role of technology within capitalism, not least in the way that he links technology and speed in the order of chronopolitical “movement-movement’. Ultimately Virilio thinks of technology as indelibly military technology, making capitalism’s true motor that of war (class war/civil war).

    On the disorientation of capitalism caused by the development of the 3D printer, isn’t there a equal possibility that, rather than simply undermining the organisation of material production, there could be an intensification of immaterial production to the point that capitalism becomes a totally abstract economy? I’m thinking about the prospect of a greater control and enclosure of the digital commons. You want to print x? First, buy the patented infostructure for that object.

    • edmundberger says:

      I completely agree with the point you make on the emergence of a “totally abstract,” immaterial economy in face of an eroded manufacturing base. It seems to me that such a thing would be a requirement for capital to continue as is, and these new modes of computational technology could very well contribute to this ‘higher phase,’ leading the digital commons to become the primary space for biopolitical struggle. While we’re speculating on possible futures, the new class composition could emerge concurrently also must be considered: we’re already seeing how the immaterialism of post-Fordist capitalism is eliminating the middle class, which came into being dependent on the strong manufacturing platform of the Fordist-Keynesian model. What do these developments hold in store for what remains of this class? Will they be able to rebound, utilize this distributed network of micro-manufacturing to create DeLandian style meshwork markets, and would the enclosure of the commons mean that corporate capitalism will profit handsomely from this? Or will the lack of access to information technology in general (i.e, internet access) prevent this from ever taking off, leading to an ever-more pronounced two-tier society? Ultimately, neither route is equitable from an emancipatory point of view, so as this situation is analyzed, we should do it while keeping in mind how exit points can be found from these developments, or at the least how to wield the situation’s tools to our advantage.

      I confess that my readings of Virilio have been rather slim, but he has been catching my eye lately… Mind tossing some recommendations my way?

  3. edmundberger says:

    @Arran & dmf – awesome, thanks!

  4. Brian Holmes says:

    “What these individuals are seeing on these screens is essentially the techno-biological vital signs of a living creature that is composed of each and every one of us, a living creature whose breaths and heart beats are semiotic registers of our own captured desires externalized in the visceral experience of being immersed in a modeled and controlled consumer marketplace.”

    That’s a perfectly composed sentence. And a polished mirror of contemporary reality!

    Concerning the potential effects of quantum computing in finance: Already, high-speed trading is about injecting volatility into markets, by means of patterns which are only effective so long as they are not yet integrated into other people’s strategic calculations. The point, here, is to create a kind of disturbance that can be successfully predicted, for a time. An increase in modeling power might negate all such strategies, leaving only the irreducibilities you mention at the end. To which I would add demographic and ecological elements that no doubt just as refractory as the subjective ones. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the Matrix-phase of human history is going to last much longer…

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