Technology and Capitalist Path Dependency

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In Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams lay out four basic demands through which, they argue, that the radical Left can utilize to rebuild the future that has been voided by capitalism (particularly in its virulent neoliberal mode). Though they need little repeating at this stage, they are as follows:

  • Full automation: the pushing forward of technological development as a political program that attacks the foundation of work as the central organizing principle of economics, polity, and life.
  • Shortening the working week: a re-invigoration of the primary aim of the labor movement of yesteryear in an effort to roll back the sort of frantic “24-7” mode of labor that has been consistently on the rise.
  • Universal basic income: an income grant to all citizens to supplement the welfare state – not replace it, as many “Hayekian socialists”[i] are now clamoring for, but to strengthen the power of labor even as forces like automation impinge upon it.
  • A devaluation of the work ethic: a movement away from the idealization of work that tethers the majority of the population to the dominant relations of production.

Several commentators have noted that while building such a future-oriented platform, Srnicek and Williams have neglected to offer a theory of capitalism. They have responded in kind that one needs to look no further than Marx’s Capital than to trace the foundations of their theory – but this itself should have been obvious from the get-go. Inventing the Future extends from a Marxist perspective through and through, and many the positions they stake out echo many of Marx’s preoccupations.[ii] And indeed, the analysis found in the book can be amplified by turning the work of Marxist economists – particularly their insistence that capitalism is fundamentally conservative when it comes to technological development.

Such as insistence might seem odd at first. As the developments from the 1980s onward have shown, capitalism has surfed a technological wave, with the constant evolution of technics and accompanying techniques shifting the forces of production and calling into being new organizations of class and power. Just as the introduction of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution brought together the centralization of production in the factory, the tech and information industries open up new avenues for value accumulation while also forcing populations down into hyper-proletariatization. Technology is key when tackling the reproduction of capitalism. This is implicit in Rosa Luxemburg’s treatment of the problem, which focuses on the self-continuity of capitalism in the face of sweeping transformations. As capitalism rose from feudalism, it required the tools, raw materials, and labor pools of that era to fully develop itself. She notes that this is attributable to two factors: “the technical and social conditions – on precise relationship between man and nature and that between men and men.”[iii] For the relationship between man and nature, it is the principles of extraction of raw materials and the transformation of raw materials into tools and crafts (and their eventual realization in the form of money) that reigns, while for the relationship between men it is this dictates of profit. Luxemburg observes that the only linkage between producers is that of exchange and of profit. The larger arena of the social, meanwhile, has little to say about the organization and arrangements of production, for they have been subordinated to the producers by the division of labor. The development of capitalism, once it began emerging from the conditions of feudalism, became path dependent, and thus capable of superseding the so-called ‘industrial divides’.

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This “path dependency” of capital is taken up by the “long wave” theorists of development, a consortium that runs the gamut from the socialist left (Nikolai Kondratieff and Ernest Mandel) to the proto-neoliberal right (Joseph Schumpeter).[iv] From here, technology – in the form of the innovation – takes center stage of capitalism’s boom and bust cycles. Schumpeter, in a clear-call back to Marx, illustrates how during periods of economic downturn basic innovations begin to pool and cluster together, attracting capital in the forms of underinvestment or even realizing their application or deployment on a small scale, usually in the peripheries of the dominant economic structures. At the same time, due to the unstable economic environment, these innovations will not attract the large investments necessary for their full realization in production – and will only do so when the next upward swing begins. At this point, investments begin to pour in and the innovation moves from the peripheries to the center. In a kind of positive feedback loop, this introduction accelerates the upward swing, thereby setting in motion the rest of the conditions of the cycle – including its inevitable dissolution.

The impact of the innovation varies depending on the type of innovation in question. Certain innovations occur in the realm of commodity goods, serving as newer and better models of pre-existing forms, while others effect a larger, more sweeping transformation in the heart of the mode of production itself. When an innovation is “so large and so discontinuous in their impact” it becomes less a matter of the simple circulation of goods, but an affair of the infrastructure that enables this circulation – in terms of both production and distribution.[v] A key example here would have been the building of the national railway network in the United States, which allowed goods to travel over great distances at a lower cost, while calling into beings entirely new branches of industry to service it. Likewise, it was Europe’s building of railroads in its colonial peripheries that allowed the increased efficiency of imperial capitalism.[vi] Another example would be the full maturation of the electrical motor and precision tools in the Fordist mode of production, with its result in the widespread usage of the automobile, the cheapening of mass produced commodities, and the transformation of the urban form to suit the needs of industrial manufacturing.

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Neo-Schumpeterian analysts such as Carlota Perez define these types of infrastructural-shifting innovations as technological revolutions capable of “forming a major constellation of interdependent technologies; a cluster of clusters or a system of systems.”[vii] Following the technological revolution comes the techno-economic paradigm, wherein the technological revolution constitutes this growth through the introduction of new industries, new organizations within pre-existing industries, or new commodity forms to introduce in the market. To use the aforementioned example, the Fordist mode of production was the technological revolution, while the techno-economic paradigm encompassed the new forms of mass production, the automobile and subsequent industries that formed alongside it, and the new classes (i.e., the technologically-minded managerial class)[viii] it engendered.

At the same time, Perez illustrates clearly how there are limits imposed on technological revolutions through the necessity of capitalist structuring. “…“the space of the technologically possible is much greater than that of the economically profitable and socially acceptable”, she writes.[ix] Technology becomes path dependent through the mechanism of investment, as it only becomes attractive once the possibilities of long-term profitable returns are positively assessed. The possibility within the technological artifact or system only realizes itself on the pre-established relations of knowledge, economic necessity, and “socio-institutional context.”[x] An industrial divide or even a crisis, then, cannot break with capitalism the way, for example, that capitalism broke with feudal arrangements, and will always be bound to the material conditions of its place and time, i.e. the arrangements of capitalism itself.

There is a critical problem with long wave theories, however, in that they place the development of innovation strictly within the context of the marketplace, prioritizing the role of corporate investment as the conditions necessary for the next wave of growth, the upswing, to take off. Something like the analysis provided by the “Monthly Review” school of Baran and Sweezy becomes important here, which shows how economic surplus does not necessarily recycle back into the general economy at a fast enough rate, triggering stagnation and downturn prior to decline in profitability through competition. While this does not undermine the role that investment plays in churning out innovation, it should give us pause to consider that “technological revolutions” and “technological paradigms” rarely come about through market action. In the spread of the railroad network, rudimentary automation technologies such as numerical control, early computational research, the internet itself, and the 90s tech boom, the state played consistently the role of coordinator and primary investor, be it in the land subsidies and rebate programs for the railroad, the military imperatives behind numerical control, computers, and the internet, or the Reaganite Strategic Defense Initiative and Strategic Computing Initiative pumping money into the structures of ‘information capitalism’. True, the Fordist mode of production might have appeared in the context of private enterprise (Henry Ford’s automobile factory), but its spread was uneven and ultimately disastrous,[xi] requiring the mobilization of industry during the Second World War to come together on a national level – and the international reconstruction in the postwar years to become implemented on a global level. Capitalist growth, when measured against these historical occurrences, often has less to do with returns on a firm’s direct investment in new innovation, and more to do with being tied directly the state’s research and development of the innovations in question.[xii] Capitalist reproduction and the path dependency of technology is never an affair of the market alone.

This brings us to some vexing problems facing us today, in our post-Recession world. After several years of positive assessments coming from leading financial analysts and neoliberal figureheads like the IMF, there has been an across-the-board downgrade that has occurred over the past several months. When measured against developments in 2013 and 2014, this year has seen the lowest job growth since 2012. The stock market, too, has been subjected to increased turbulence not only in China, but in the United States as well. In Europe, corporate revenues and earnings are falling well below that of last year. What we’re witnessing is a generalized slowdown of the global economy at precisely the point when, according the long wave theorists, we should be witnessing a take-off through the innovations that pooled during the Recession.

And innovations are abounding! While climate change poses a challenge to the very ideology of capitalist development, massive investments into green energy and technology offers an incredible opportunity for job growth, and along with it, increased purchasing power and thus increased demand. The plethora of “Internet of Things” technologies opens up a wide array of consumer commodities that would provide a watershed for firms that cash in on data-sharing and market research. Driverless cars, smart grids, sensor technology for infrastructure, drones, the newest rounds in GPS technology, water recycling, novel forms for harnessing, storing, and distributing wind and solar technology – each of these are coming into view and yet, paradoxically, being held back from hitting the market. Despite lower-than-expected revenue rates, cash flow problems cannot be instantly attributed as the cause for this sluggish non-momentum; as Brian Holmes points out, coordinated action between central banks have injected “some 12 trillion USD into the global monetary system”.[xiii]

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Instead corporate investments are declining, as firms are opting not to put their money into technological research and development, market research, and innovation, but into financial assets – stocks, bonds, and insurance.[xiv] Capital now, more than ever, tends towards its fictitious form rather than flowing back into the conditions of material production – a problem for both capitalism as a whole and any socialist alternative alike. It means that just as in the past, the reproduction of capitalism will require the state to come forward and assume the role of the coordinator. One can imagine that, pushed by climate change, a ‘Green New Deal’ could provide the impetus for renewed growth in material production, or a high-tech jobs program could direct capitalism away from the increased fragmentation (or more properly, Uberization) of the ‘app economy’. The problem is that in neoliberal governmentality, it is exceedingly unlikely that the state in its current form would be able to deliver such reforms, though the re-emergence of social democratic attitudes in North America and Europe raise the specter of a post-neoliberal stateform.

This is where dialogues like Srnicek and William’s Inventing the Future become particularly instructive and insightful, especially in that they go a long way in dispelling the Left’s long maintained state-phobia, while also reminding the Left that social reforms need not be antithetical to socialist goals, but could serve as a platform for more wide-ranging forms of struggle. As always, there are multiple outcomes to the current juncture. In the void of alternative, there is a very real risk of a slippage back into a recession, though central banks and governments around the world are poised to take decisive action. Firms could continue to dump their cash into financial assets, though it is entirely conceivable that these assets will be sold off and the money turned back into investment. Or, while it not take place on the level of a New Deal, it seems very likely that increasingly interventionist states will regulate markets and help coordinate action to get growth moving again. This latter option would require much prodding from below, particularly by those aligned with the environment movement, but also with the labor movement. While we will not see the disappearance of the neoliberal consensus anytime soon, it is weathering many blows – and it is precisely in the organization against it that those who oppose capitalism, oppose work, and want an open future have the most to say.

[i] On Hayekian socialism and the libertarian endorsement of a basic income, see Mike Munger “Libertarian Mungerfesto: Part V – Hayekian Socialism” Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/03/7495/. For a deeper insight into this ‘post-Austrian’ perspective, I would refer the reader to the anthology edited by Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism, Inequality, and Structural Poverty Minor Compositions, 2011

[ii] For an excellent analysis of Marx’s perspective on technology and science that easily translates into an accelerationist discourse, see Amy E. Wendling Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation Palgrave Macmillian, 2009. Wendling’s analysis, in turn, is largely based Moishe Postone’s depiction of late Marx’s development of “’a critique of labor in capitalism’ and not ‘a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labor.’” (pg. 34). See Moishe Postone Time, Labor, and Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory Cambridge University Press, 1993

[iii] Rosa Luxemburg The Accumulation of Capital Routledge, 2003 pg. 32

[iv] See Nikolai Kondratieff The Long Waves in Economic Life Martino Fine Books, 2014; Joseph Schumpeter A Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry Into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle Transaction Publishers, 1982; Ernest Mandel Long Waves of Capitalist Development: A Marxist Interpretation Verso, 1995

[v] Christopher Freeman and Luc Soete Economics of Industrial Innovation Routledge, 1997, pg. 20

[vi] This is discussed at length in Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism Verso, 1985

[vii] Carlota Perez “Technological Revolutions and Techno-Economic Paradigms” Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics No. 20, January, 2009, The Other Canon Foundation http://technologygovernance.eu/files/main/2009070708552121.pdf, pg. 17

[viii] On the ways in which Fordist launched an entire proto-middle class of managers see James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones and Daniel Roos The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production– Toyota’s Secret Weapon in the Global Car Wars That Is Now Revolutionizing World Industry Free Press, 2007

[ix] Perez “Technological Revolutions and Techno-Economic Paradigms” pg. 4

[x] Ibid

[xi] The relationship between the uneven development of Early Fordism and the Great Depression is analyzed in Michel Aglietta A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience Verso, 2001

[xii] A series of excellent case studies for this are to be found in David F. Noble Forces of Production: A Social History of Automation Oxford University Press, 1986.

[xiii] Via Nettime, November 3rd, 2015 https://www.mail-archive.com/nettime-l@mail.kein.org/msg03660.html

[xiv] This is analyzed in full by Michael Roberts in his blog post “Too much profit, not too little?” The Next Recession https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/too-much-profit-not-too-little/. He writes that “companies are not really ‘awash with cash’ any more than they were 30 years ago.  What has happened is that US corporations have used more and more of their profits to invest in financial assets rather than in productive investment.  Their cash ratios are pretty much unchanged, suggesting that there is not a ‘wall of money’ out there waiting to be invested in the real economy.”

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16 Responses to Technology and Capitalist Path Dependency

  1. S.C. Hickman says:

    Full automation, Short work week, Universal basic income, and devaluation of work ethic…

    When I look at that I think to myself. Yes, yes, all noble and equitable ideals… but…
    I have to wonder what this will really lead us into:

    Full automation: a path dependency on machines, artificial life-forms and intelligence – a path to stupidity and dependency wherein we hand over our lives and minds to the machine;

    Short work week: sounds great, all that leisure time to be “creative”, “innovative”, etc. But what about all the lazy people who just love to drink, party, and have a great time; boredom; all that time for sex, aggression, etc.? Looking back at societies based around leisure I see nothing but blood and games… sadomasochism running rampant…

    Universal basic income: again, where will most of the people be in such a society? If one is not a leader, not creative? I think we know where this leads: if you’re not a contributor you become a part of the problem… suddenly we’re back in that world of ethics where people in a vacuum will impose out of boredom a darker sense of morality just to maintain order and give people some direction in their lives.

    Devaluation of work week: nice negative plan, but what of the revaluation? What positive valuation for the non-work week? Again, can one imagine a world where leisure reigns? I see this leading to more subtle forms of enslavement rather than liberation…

    I think this is the problem of most Leftist thought at the moment: it forgets Freud, it forgets Homer, it forgets the Bible, it forgets Confucius, it forgets most of our ancient cultures… we may appear to be Modern but in truth we’re still the same barbaric naked apes we’ve always been dressed up in the frippery of wonderful fantasies of the Good Life.

    Yes, I’ve become more cynical of such Leftward emancipatory visions. One want win the day with economics, or utopian ideology. Reality is not a nice place, and neither are we. People will fall back into the ancient patterns of mindlessness that have in every generation produced the battle between elites and followers. Prejudice, hate, anger, greed, etc. all the human foibles cannot be legislated away. To free up all that energy will be to unleash hell on earth not paradise.

    • edmundberger says:

      Hi Steve,

      There’s a funny thing about advocating “full automation”: it actually won’t take place, or at least there possibility is so far off that it remains pretty inconceivable. What I mean by this isn’t that automation won’t play a major role in production and consumption – it will – but there are plenty of elements that are incapable of being automated. I’m thinking primarily of labor that operates in the affective mode – healthcare, therapeutics, end-of-life care and the like. At the same time, as Anna Tsing points out, following a given corporate supply chain back to its origins and you’ll end up in the weirdest places, teeming with largely overlooked human forms of labor. In the case of her mushroom pickers, it seems exceedingly unlikely that the demands of this job won’t be automated (barring the far-off scenario of AI equipped with quite sophisticated sensor technology), and the same is the case in, for example, rare earth mineral extraction.

      Thus confronting this disjunction – balancing the disjunction between an ever-shrinking job market and the handful of jobs remaining (and not to mention rendering these in the context of complex ecosystems) – becomes the necessity of any future-oriented politics. At this stage, all politics must be future-oriented, because the alternative is this machinic reality compounded by austerity and the increase of ‘bullshit jobs’. Neoliberalism is, and always has been, a terminal crisis emanating from capitalism’s internal contradiction… when Thatcher uttered the words that “there is no alternative”, the iron lady was telling us that there is no alternative, no escape to crisis. Crisis will compound: left to its own devices, capitalism will automate as much as it can. We’re probably mid-way in this scenario right now: jobs are eliminated under concept that they will pick up elsewhere in the economy, even if things are reaching a stage where they are not. There is a revolution of ‘creeping’ automation, proceeding at a variety of scales: within firms themselves, within national-level economies, and between states. This, of course is proceeding slowly for the reasons given towards the end of this essay, but as it does occur we won’t see a decline of prices. The costs that are sunk into re-tooling factories with automated technologies will need to be returned, thus setting in motion the necessity for labor in its most irrelevant, degrading, and precarious forms. Technologically-driven “contract” labor is simply the most recent variation of this shift, and conforms quite nicely to neoliberalism’s reconfiguration of the state-form and the deconstruction of organized labor.

      Certainly a future with less work wouldn’t be rosy, but it would, without a doubt, be better than the one we’re currently stuck in (if navigated correctly, of course – and that’s where the real work begins). The notion that we need to position labor at the center of our societies, especially the sort of hyper-labor that majority of the world’s population is subjected to, is a rather ahistorical notion, and more reflective of European attitudes towards work that have everything to with both the demands of the Industrial Revolution and religious orthodoxy. We’re the subjects of a war waged against us in the name of profit seeking – why would we want it to continue? Why let hyperprecarity organize our lives, and why let the violence it engenders, the crime and the desperation, rip through our social fabric? Certainly the liberal dream of “everybody an artist!” won’t be a reality, but laziness is a better alternative than this muck. The concept of laziness, it seems to me, is a cultural construct rooted deeply in an ideology of productivity – the negative inverse of the laborer deployed to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. At this level, capitalism is not only about profit seeking – it’s about discipline, a pervasive control operation that limits the (intra-)agency of the individual. Work is time, and the expulsion of mental and physical energy. It is, by its nature, an organization of isolation and fragmentation. Laziness means: I don’t have to fill my time with superfluous production, and capitulate to the power of others.

      Plus, there’s already existing effects of work that must be taken into account. Read very generously, labor takes up nearly 27% of our week. If we get 8 hours of sleep a night – a rarity! – that leaves only around 40% of the week leftover. When you begin factoring in time taken to get ready, commute, etc, this number begins decreasing. Studies have shown that this lifestyle contribute to mental illness, strokes, heart problems, interpersonal problems, so on and so forth – simply to uphold a level of ‘efficiency’ and output at odds with the general ecology of the world itself. Scaling back working hours could put a dent in unemployment levels, but if combined with a reeling back of our delirious output, we might have something that looks like an adequate politics for our era of physical, mental, and ecological exhaustion.

      • S.C. Hickman says:

        Oh, yea, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against getting rid of the kind of work we have in this menagerie of late capitalism, which seems moot and almost stupid. For me it is a different kind of work we need, a work with the hands among those who share in existence a common life of the earth. Not some pie in the sky return to a mythical primitivism, but rather of a scaled down world where people can truly participate in reality, rather than living as slaves to support the few, the rich, the elite of the world corporate buggery.

        I think we’re on the same page there!

  2. dmf says:

    e.b. do you know how to pin this to the top of the blog with the new formatting?

    • edmundberger says:

      Hey dmf, it took me a while but on the edit page on the left hand side there’s a little toggle button that allows you to do it. I am not a fan of the new interface!

      • dmf says:

        thanks i’ll take a look yeah i don’t see the advantage to the changes which seem rather to limit use and unlike last time they don’t seem to be offering us the option of choosing to stick w/ the previous model, ah well that the e-age change for the sake of change.
        on the upside https://twitter.com/n_srnck shared this with his peeps which was kind.

    • S.C. Hickman says:

      Yea, the new editor changes are taking some time to get used too. Dam they sneak up on you without warning on WordPress.

      • edmundberger says:

        I feel like they’ve done it about fifty times in the past year. How ironic that we’re complaining about technological change!

      • edmundberger says:

        Yeah, I think that a conversation that needs to be had is about the rise of new desktop manufacturing techniques, the open source ethos of the maker’s movement, and the like… Automation needs to be analyzed and probably pushed forward, but it seems that distributing production on a small scale through these types of technologies could go a long way in curbing the excesses that industrial mass production demands. Freeing up time, and an actual education in systems, could actually contribute to production operating in a completely different way! But with things like the TPP (which will block a lot of the open access to info that such a DIY world requires), and the ongoing corporatization of the maker’s movement make this seem unlikely without a political mobilization for it. Such times we live in!

      • S.C. Hickman says:

        Yep, it’s the old saw: “How to get power into the hands of the people, the common man who after all has a long history of tinkering and inventing the tools the corporate dogs us.”

      • edmundberger says:

        Great quote! What’s the source?

      • S.C. Hickman says:

        Ah! That’s a good question? I was trying to remember, but can’t … it like most things popped into my head from memory traces that spurt up our of that darkness within…

  3. Pingback: Reinventing the Future | Synthetic Edifice

  4. Pingback: Revolts of Futures Past: Cycles of Struggle, Technology and Neoliberalism | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

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