The context of the covid-19 pandemic created the right conditions for an institutional and normative framework capable of changing the mentalities, customs and values of our societies, driving new desires, habits and values, but above all, imposing the production mode of the digital, platform economy.
By Aram Aharonian
Thus, social behaviour became regulated, predictable and controllable, generating a new Style of Life, production, consumption and consumers; responding to the strategic interests of the capitalist system. Technological revolutions have not happened by chance, but are the way to ensure the process of accumulation of capitalist profit at each stage of its historical development.
The current process is giving way to a new form of capitalism based on the digital economy, the offshoring of work and the casualisation of labour, accompanied by surveillance and permanent confinement; it is a reorganisation of the system.
This so-called platform capitalism has been given different names: collective intelligence, web 2.0, surveillance capitalism, digital feudalism. It is not a technology, nor an application, but the business model, from agriculture to education, from transport to public administration, from the economy to communication or health.
Algorithms process the information of each individual and correlate it with statistical, scientific, sociological and historical information to generate behavioural models as a tool for control and manipulation of the masses. “He who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past will control the future,” wrote George Orwell in 1984.
The aim of these predictive algorithms is to know us well enough to be able to manipulate us and also to replace us, including cognitive tasks such as writing articles or painting a Picasso.
Manuel Castells warned that technological revolutions only occur if societies have an institutional framework and norms that foster new desires, habits, goals and values, with the capacity to modify mentalities and dissolve traditional customs, thus enabling new structural changes that allow for new patterns that correct the general behaviour of the population and thus exercise social control.
These are the indispensable conditions for penetrating and modifying all ambits of existence (social, economic, political, etc.) and producing, consolidating and legitimising total social change. Sociologist Carmen Torralbo points out that these conditions were met in the three technological revolutions that preceded the current pandemic.
It was during the global economic and, above all, financial crisis of 2008 that the “platform economy” emerged, the result of the surplus of liquid capital after the collapse of the dotcom fizz in a context of high unemployment, which made it easier for employers to impose their conditions in the labour and economic ambit.
To be clear: digital platforms are mostly owned by multinational companies – Glovo, Deliveroo, Uber, Rappi, Booking, Airbnb, Cabify, Amazon, among others – which rapidly proliferated, monopolising activities in the service sector, redefining it and replacing part of traditional commerce, using new technology devices programmed with artificial intelligence and algorithms that control and monitor all aspects of the work process and – above all – their workers.
These companies are highly contested, especially because of the use and commodification of the huge amount of data they generate, the main source of their profits. This new strategy of capitalist accumulation has weakened labour organisations and “sells” as freedom, innovation and modernisation what is a modernised re-edition of Taylorism – which attempted to time the execution of work and devised a remuneration system that rewarded the worker’s effort to increase production in this way – but without any of its advantages.
Shoshana Zuboff, sociologist, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and American writer, points out that she called this form of operation “surveillance capitalism” and Canadian Nick Srnicek – associated with the political theory of accelerationism and a post-scarcity economy – calls it “platform capitalism”.
The data currently generated by users on the internet is a raw material, and it is the platforms that extract the surplus value from it. It is a form of reorganisation of capitalism which, in the face of the gradual decline in the profitability of manufacturing in recent years, turned to data as a way of maintaining economic growth and production.
Nick Srnicek defines platforms as “digital infrastructures that allow two or more groups to interact”, a new business model that has evolved into a powerful new type of company, which focuses on the extraction and use of a particular type of raw material: data. The activities of users are the natural source of that raw material, which, like oil, is a resource that is extracted, refined and used in different ways.
Platforms depend on “network effects”: the more users they have, the more valuable a platform becomes. In an example: the more people Google, the more accurate Google’s algorithm becomes and the more useful it is to us. For the author, this means that there is a natural tendency towards monopolisation.
Although they are often postulated as neutral scenarios, as “empty shells” where interaction takes place, the platforms actually control the rules of the game: Uber, for example, predicts where demand will be and raises prices for a certain area. This invisible hand of the algorithm contradicts the discourse that these companies often have, in which they euphemistically define themselves as part of the “collaborative economy”.
Srnicek postulates five types of digital infrastructures: advertising platforms (Google, Facebook), which extract information from users, process it and then use that data to sell advertising space; cloud platforms (Amazon Web Services, Salesforce), which rent hardware and software to other companies; industrial platforms (General Electric, Siemens), which produce the hardware and software needed to transform classical manufacturing into internet-connected processes.
He also talks about product platforms (Spotify, Rolls Royce), which transform a traditional good into a service and charge a subscription or rental fee, and austere platforms because they lack assets: Uber does not have a fleet of taxis, Airbnb does not have flats and Rappi does not have bicycles. The only relevant fixed capital is their software. Otherwise, they operate through a hyper-tertiarised and delocalised model.
A pandemic to impose the model
Those transitory measures came to stay and as the pandemic dragged on, the new habits were incorporated into everyday life, in a process parallel to the pace at which private companies create, implement and expand their various digital platforms (during 2020 they declined compared to 2019).
This new situation is making it possible to register, collect, store, commodify and analyse the responses of the social majority. Because with the implementation and obligation of ICTs, all our movements leave an electronic footprint, data, as a large part of our relations, transactions and procedures are carried out telematically.
The pandemic triggered an unprecedented and profound social change, a great qualitative (and quantitative) leap with respect to the previous situation: the fourth technological revolution (4.0) is being consolidated and legitimised, silently (paradoxically) and without social resistance. The question is who drove the pandemic?
This new technological revolution was aimed at the digital and ecological transition, while national and international economic and political elites created a great expectation that it will bring innovation, modernisation, progress, economic recovery, equity and equality, as a way of legitimising the transformations they themselves are driving.
Immersed in the “comfort” of our digital devices (especially our smarter-than-we-are phones) we are unaware of what is happening and, therefore, of social action.
In this world of platforms, digital production and consumption goods (smartphones, mobiles and computers, etc.) and energy goods (electric vehicles, building and home insulation products, etc.) are produced without moving towards more humanised production conditions and labour and consumption relations.
Meanwhile, the green and digital economy were only new growth niches for the expansion of private companies, and the same is progressively happening in other key ambits: education and health, including mental health. But there are contradictions in making the digital and green transition because the former has an impact on the latter.
Statistics say that 5.32 billion of the world’s 7.8 billion people use a mobile phone, equivalent to 67% of the total world population. But beware: not all capitalism is digital. There are still people who harvest tomatoes, potatoes or rice with their own hands, there are those who pick up rubbish, and manual workers, who are not in front of a computer. Are they safe?
While digital platforms offer the possibility to work from anywhere, at any time, and she says that one can take the work that suits them best, engaging in this kind of work also carries risks in terms of employment status, and whether or not one enjoys adequate income, social protection and other benefits.
But digital platforms continue to be implemented, uncritically, taking over the entire public sector, replacing face-to-face relationships and service provision with virtual ones: a form of privatisation in disguise, as the whole process of digitisation is handed over to large private, national and transnational companies.
We lack digital sovereignty (almost) everywhere in the world – in a context of great global competition for the acquisition and control of these resources – and having previously privatised its strategic resources (especially telecommunications and energy), exposing a situation of great dependence and vulnerability with respect to the private ambit, with far-reaching political, social and cultural consequences.
One of its main characteristics is the demand for unregulated work, the lack of access to labour rights and the transfer to workers of costs, means of production and hours of inactivity. For their consolidation, the platform-companies have produced discourses of mystification of this work, well disseminated by the hegemonic media (in the world and in each of our countries).
In this context, for example, workers are treated as entrepreneurs, the employment relationship as a partnership, the sale or rental of the force as a sharing of resources with a social purpose. However, the movements of recent years have shown that workers do not mechanically grasp these discourses and have rebelled against the precariousness of the work they are subjected to.
Capitalist and competitive logics are favoured by the growing precariousness and individualism of those who concentrate on their own screen. The capitalist normalisation of self-exploitation speaks of “a self that exploits itself”, when it is something that is structurally and socially encouraged. The new versions of digital capitalism are part of the ideological fabric of an accelerated world, which encourages hyperproduction as the driving force and delocalisation as the norm.
For the Spanish researcher Remedios Zafra, the comparison between capitalism and patriarchy in their forms of self-exploitation is of great help, insofar as patriarchy has been characterised precisely by turning women into agents that maintain their own subordination, projecting imaginaries that define them in relation to men, favouring their isolation in the private sphere and encouraging them to monitor and control other women, in other words, reproducing a system of domination.
As the traditional saying goes, hope is the last thing to go. In fact, it was at the bottom of the famous Pandora’s box. Hope, understood as an optimistic faith that things will turn out well, without the need for any basis in reality, is yet another example of the enormous power that the ability to fantasise gives us human beings. Sowing hope is also a form of manipulation: if one cannot find solutions, one is left with hope.
The word hope comes from the Latin sperare (to have hope) and this from spes, hope. The verb sperare gave us to hope, to despair and to prosper. In the Bible, hope is the confident expectation and longing to receive the blessings that the righteous have been promised (and have not received), it is the eager expectation of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.
We are tired of waiting, of the obligation to have “hope”, which is the recognition that there is no (yet?) possible proposition in this world. We know that, ultimately, our hope will not come from the capitalist platforms: perhaps it can come from the nobodies, the hopeless.