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No Escape from Our Techno-Feudal World
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The political economy of the Digital Age remains virtually terra incognita. In Techno-Feudalism, published three months ago in France (no English translation yet), Cedric Durand, an economist at the Sorbonne, provides a crucial, global public service as he sifts through the new Matrix that controls all our lives.

Durand places the Digital Age in the larger context of the historical evolution of capitalism to show how the Washington consensus ended up metastasized into the Silicon Valley consensus. In a delightful twist, he brands the new grove as the “Californian ideology”.

We’re far away from Jefferson Airplane and the Beach Boys; it’s more like Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” on steroids, complete with IMF-style “structural reforms” emphasizing “flexibilization” of work and outright marketization/financialization of everyday life.

The Digital Age was crucially associated with right-wing ideology from the very start. The incubation was provided by the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), active from 1993 to 2010 and conveniently funded, among others, by Microsoft, At&T, Disney, Sony, Oracle, Google and Yahoo.

In 1994, PFF held a ground-breaking conference in Atlanta that eventually led to a seminal Magna Carta: literally, Cyberspace and the American Dream: a Magna Carta for the Knowledge Era, published in 1996, during the first Clinton term.

Not by accident the magazine Wired was founded, just like PFF, in 1993, instantly becoming the house organ of the “Californian ideology”.

Among the authors of the Magna Carta we find futurist Alvin “Future Shock” Toffler and Reagan’s former scientific counselor George Keyworth. Before anyone else, they were already conceptualizing how “cyberspace is a bioelectronic environment which is literally universal”. Their Magna Carta was the privileged road map to explore the new frontier.

Those Randian heroes

Also not by accident the intellectual guru of the new frontier was Ayn Rand and her quite primitive dichotomy between “pioneers” and the mob. Rand declared that egotism is good, altruism is evil, and empathy is irrational.

When it comes to the new property rights of the new Eldorado, all power should be exercised by the Silicon Valley “pioneers”, a Narcissus bunch in love with their mirror image as superior Randian heroes. In the name of innovation they should be allowed to destroy any established rules, in a Schumpeterian “creative destruction” rampage.

That has led to our current environment, where Google, Facebook, Uber and co. can overstep any legal framework, imposing their innovations like a fait accompli.

Durand goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to the true nature of “digital domination”: US leadership was never achieved because of spontaneous market forces.

On the contrary. The history of Silicon Valley is absolutely dependent on state intervention – especially via the industrial-military complex and the aero-spatial complex. The Ames Research Center, one of NASA’s top labs, is in Mountain View. Stanford was always awarded juicy military research contracts. During WWII, Hewlett Packard, for instance, was flourishing thanks to their electronics being used to manufacture radars. Throughout the 1960s, the US military bought the bulk of the still infant semiconductor production.

The Rise of Data Capital, a 2016 MIT Technological Review report produced “in partnership” with Oracle, showed how digital networks open access to a new, virgin underground brimming with resources: “Those that arrive first and take control obtain the resources they’re seeking” – in the form of data.

So everything from video-surveillance images and electronic banking to DNA samples and supermarket tickets implies some form of territorial appropriation. Here we see in all its glory the extractivist logic inbuilt in the development of Big Data.

Durand gives us the example of Android to illustrate the extractivist logic in action. Google made Android free for all smartphones so it would acquire a strategic market position, beating the Apple ecosystem and thus becoming the default internet entry point for virtually the whole planet. That’s how a de facto, immensely valuable, online real estate empire is built.

The key point is that whatever the original business – Google, Amazon, Uber – strategies of conquering cyberspace all point to the same target: take control of “spaces of observation and capture” of data.

About the Chinese credit system…

Durand offers a finely balanced analysis of the Chinese credit system – a public/private hybrid system launched in 2013 during the 3rd plenum of the 18th Congress of the CCP, under the motto “to value sincerity and punish insincerity”.

For the State Council, the supreme government authority in China, what really mattered was to encourage behavior deemed responsible in the financial, economic and socio-political spheres, and sanction what is not. It’s all about trust. Beijing defines it as “a method of perfecting the socialist market economy system that improves social governance”.

The Chinese term – shehui xinyong – is totally lost in translation in the West. Way more complex than “social credit”, it’s more about “trustworthiness”, in the sense of integrity. Instead of the pedestrian Western accusations of being an Orwellian system, priorities include the fight against fraud and corruption at the national, regional and local levels, violations of environmental rules, disrespect of food security norms.

Cybernetic management of social life is being seriously discussed in China since the 1980s. In fact, since the 1940s, as we see in Mao’s Little Red Book. It could be seen as inspired by the Maoist principle of “mass lines”, as in “start with the masses to come back to the masses: to amass the ideas of the masses (which are dispersed, non-systematic), concentrate them (in general ideas and systematic), then come back to the masses to diffuse and explain them, make sure the masses assimilate them and translate them into action, and verify in the action of the masses the pertinence of these ideas”.

ORDER IT NOW

Durand’s analysis goes one step beyond Soshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism when he finally reaches the core of his thesis, showing how digital platforms become “fiefdoms”: they live out of, and profit from, their vast “digital territory” peopled with data even as they lock in power over their services, which are deemed indispensable.

And just as in feudalism, fiefdoms dominate territory by attaching serfs. Masters made their living profiting from the social power derived from the exploitation of their domain, and that implied unlimited power over the serfs.

It all spells out total concentration. Silicon Valley stalwart Peter Thiel has always stressed the target of the digital entrepreneur is exactly to bypass competition. As quoted in Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, Thiel declared, “Capitalism and competition are antagonistic. Competition is for losers.”

So now we are facing not a mere clash between Silicon Valley capitalism and finance capital, but actually a new mode of production:

a turbo-capitalist survival as rentier capitalism, where Silicon giants take the place of estates, and also the State. That is the “techno-feudal” option, as defined by Durand.

Blake meets Burroughs

Durand’s book is extremely relevant to show how the theoretical and political critique of the Digital Age is still rarified. There is no precise cartography of all those dodgy circuits of revenue extraction. No analysis of how do they profit from the financial casino – especially mega investment funds that facilitate hyper-concentration. Or how do they profit from the hardcore exploitation of workers in the gig economy.

The total concentration of the digital glebe is leading to a scenario, as Durand recalls, already dreamed up by Stuart Mill, where every land in a country belonged to a single master. Our generalized dependency on the digital masters seems to be “the cannibal future of liberalism in the age of algorithms”.

Is there a possible way out? The temptation is to go radical – a Blake/Burroughs crossover. We have to expand our scope of comprehension – and stop confusing the map (as shown in the Magna Carta) with the territory (our perception).

William Blake, in his proto-psychedelic visions, was all about liberation and subordination – depicting an authoritarian deity imposing conformity via a sort of source code of mass influence. Looks like a proto-analysis of the Digital Age.

William Burroughs conceptualized Control – an array of manipulations including mass media (he would be horrified by social media). To break down Control, we must be able to hack into and disrupt its core programs. Burroughs showed how all forms of Control must be rejected – and defeated: “Authority figures are seen for what they are: dead empty masks manipulated by computers”.

Here’s our future: hackers or slaves.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. Mikael_ says:

    Likely the most confused article I have ever read from Pepe Escobar.

    Chinese shehui xinyong (and by extension Mao) good, Silicon Valley digital fiefdoms bad.
    That’s your deep-level analysis?

  2. Sean says:

    According to Larry Summers, Biden ought not to support the commercial agenda of U.S. financial firms’ foreign operations. Since he was 29 years old, Biden has been the Senator for Delaware, which is where most Fortune 500 companies are incorporated. After hunkering down until Trump, offshoring and investing in Chinese growth (at the expense of domestic US industry) will be back with a vengeance. It will be going into overdrive.

  3. Svevlad says:

    I have a proposal. EMP to deep fry every single electronic on the planet permanently. Problem solved, soyadeen purged.

  4. @Mikael_

    I see what you’re saying about this article but it has to be admitted that Pepe including the Silicon Valley technocrats as being a large part of the deep state, is self evident. They are literally the catalyst that speeds up the deep states power, in my opinion.

  5. Trump trying to get rid of 230 protection is the wrong way to go about it.

    Rather, 230 protection should be granted ONLY to those platforms that allow free speech.

    If companies want to play the role of publisher, no more 230 protection for them.

    • Thanks: joe2.5
    • Replies: @follyofwar
  6. “Capitalism and competition are antagonistic. Competition is for losers.”

    You can almost hear John D. Rockefeller.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Rockefeller

  7. In a delightful twist, he brands the new grove as the “Californian ideology”.

    Grove? Would that be Bohemian Grove perchance?

  8. onebornfree says: • Website

    “To break down Control, we must be able to hack into and disrupt its core programs.”

    And this must be done from outside the system. Why?

    Please see Caitlin Johnstone’s “The Streetlight Effect: When People Look Within The System For Solutions To The System”.
    https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2020/12/02/the-streetlight-effect-when-people-look-within-the-system-for-solutions-to-the-system/

    Regards, onebornfree

  9. polistra says: • Website

    The Rand/Tech connection is clear and important. The harshest lockdowns are in the most “libertarian” states. Amazon and Apple are centerpoints of tyranny, so Washington and California are centerpoints as well.

    But the China connection isn’t so clear. Several African countries are semi-colonies of China, yet maintain full freedom from lockdowns and masks. Tanzania is the shining star, officially and practically free from the start, with a president who is a REAL SCIENTIST, who disproved the entire hoax with a REAL EXPERIMENT. Uganda and Kenya are not officially free, but it’s clear from current Youtube clips that nobody is masked or shutdown or panicked. People are free and life is normal.

  10. @Priss Factor

    Isn’t that the way it was set up at the beginning? Platforms not publishers? As the current situation shows, vis-à-vis Twitter and Facebook censorship of issues they disagree with, once Washington gives these behemoths protection from lawsuits, it is near impossible to take it away, even though Zuckerberg and Dorsey have given our elected idiots a big FU.

  11. As a teenager in the late 60’s I read Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” and, for a few years, became a devotee, until reality hit me in the face. Rand worshiped manly-men who would never bow down to authority, as exemplified by her architect protagonist Howard Roark. Rand came from an earlier era, when capitalists used to make things. She abhorred crony capitalism, which our once free market system has devolved into. Far from being “the intellectual guru of the new frontier” (as Pepe describes her), I think she would have looked at the victory of finance capitalism with disgust.

    Rand’s heroes Roark and John Galt (“Atlas Shrugged”) were strong fearless men of great accomplishment, who would never have comprised their principles for money. Soy boys Zuckerberg and Dorsey never built anything, never got their hands dirty, and are dependent upon crony capitalism and government protection (via Section 230 of the Communications Act) of their unearned multi-billion dollar empires. I’d submit that the working class heroes Rand envisioned and today’s financial billionaires are complete opposites.

    And I don’t get Escobar’s propping up lifetime heroin addict and pervert William Burroughs as some kind of visionary thinker. I tried to read “Naked Lunch” and found it undigestible drivel. No matter, Pepe, in spite of this negative review, I still love your writing!

    • Agree: Justvisiting
    • Replies: @Justvisiting
    , @Mikael_
  12. Limit copyright to seven years and patient to five. Things would broaden out quite quickly.

  13. Levtraro says:

    So everything from video-surveillance images and electronic banking to DNA samples and supermarket tickets implies some form of territorial appropriation. Here we see in all its glory the extractivist logic inbuilt in the development of Big Data.

    The development of big data is not an example of neo-feudalism and/or extractivism. It is the result of the growth of mathematics and statistics into the realm of human behaviour, the same way it grew into physics first, then biology, over the past centuries. As it happened, this growth started in the western world and the first companies collecting enough data to exploit it were those that you call big tech.

    • Replies: @antibeast
  14. @Mikael_

    Translation – the tech world would like to make everyone slaves -while complaining about others.

  15. @follyofwar

    Good comments on Ayn Rand. Most people who write about her don’t have the foggiest clue what she was saying.

    A Randian Big Tech type would be absolutely opposed to censorship of any kind (or its many variants).

    They would also oppose any connection to the government, and would refuse all government contracts.

    They would equally oppose all political correctness, affirmative action, and advocacy of sexual deviancy (or normality for that matter).

    The politicians would hate these people, would attack them 24/7, and try to find a million ways to disrupt their operations.

    We are talking big time alternate universe here.

    • Thanks: follyofwar
  16. antibeast says:
    @Levtraro

    The development of big data is not an example of neo-feudalism and/or extractivism. It is the result of the growth of mathematics and statistics into the realm of human behaviour, the same way it grew into physics first, then biology, over the past centuries. As it happened, this growth started in the western world and the first companies collecting enough data to exploit it were those that you call big tech.

    What Escobar meant by the “extractivist logic” of techno-feudalism as exemplified by Big Tech is their ownership of the means of production and distribution of data. This is the result of the growth of Information Technology into the realm of human societies which is now in the Information Age, starting with the Information Revolution in Silicon Valley in the second-half of the 20th century, in the same way that Industrial Technology ushered in the Industrial Age, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in England in the second-half of the 18th century and later in America in the second-half of the 19th century.

    In many ways, the Data-Barons of Big Tech resemble the Robber-Barons of Big Oil and Big Steel. The Data-Barons made their fortunes from Big Tech which owns the data extracted from their online platforms while the Robber-Barons made their fortunes from Big Oil which owns the petrol produced from oil extracted from the ground and Big Steel which owns the steel produced from iron ores extracted from the ground. The nature of the commodity being owned has changed but the character of their ownership has not, from industrial-capitalism to techno-feudalism.

    • Replies: @Levtraro
  17. Mikael_ says:
    @follyofwar

    I read something very different out of “Atlas Shrugged.”
    Most of it -not all- has passed the test of time.

    Good:
    Hank Rearden is the archetypal man striving for the appreciation of his mother (even by his choice of wife), but never getting it. He is able to (somewhat) break out of her spell over the course of the book.
    Ayn describes so clear-sightedly the typical self-destruction of: true socialism (“tragedy of the commons”), and authority structures when deceit and irresponsibility [stay quiet when you should speak up] take over, especially top-down (give the order to drive the steam locomotive into the long uphill tunnel to one person after another, until you find someone dumb enough to do it while all others who know better stay quiet.) Only years later I found indications she just varied stories of real events (often in the US!) from a few years before. But still true.
    John Galt is the cold-hard truth teller. To correct the ridiculous straw-manning by Pepe above (“altruism is evil”), Ayn Rand through John Galt correctly points out that unlimited altruism without reciprocity is self-defeating. With that -formerly common sense- she hit bulls-eye, also compare to ‘white guilt’ nowadays.

    Strong Caveats:
    Ayn Rand’s “solutions” are hocus-pocus. (Took me 10 years to realize that.)
    Galt’s Gulch is the aggrandized teenager dream of building a treehouse and retreating into it. That doesn’t work because in reality the mob will come after you, as you cannot effectively hide forever. And if you plan to first build undefeatable hiding/cloaking devices or something like that, you just went from bad to worse by replacing permanent self-isolation with god-like fantasies. But problems of a certain size require you to [try to] work together with a large group of people.
    Second, as a man I now can state that perfectism oozes out of Dagny’s pores. Such a woman doesn’t, and never did, exist. You’ll have to accept you own and everyone else’s imperfections [but not capitulation/defeatism], to ever have a chance to achieve long-term content of mind.

  18. Levtraro says:
    @antibeast

    I don’t think we are in disagreement here, it’s just that we are looking at different but co-existing dynamics and my point is that the dynamics leading to data-barons (apt description btw) is just a particular realization of a higher dynamics (let’s call it mathematization for want of a better word) and there are other particular results of that higher dynamics such as the one materializing in China.

    I felt that Escobar’s essay was kind of missing the big picture making it look like the use of vast data of people’s activities was just connected to the empowerment of data-barons, or techno-feudalism.

    • Replies: @antibeast
  19. @Mikael_

    The difference is that, in China, Beijing controls their equivalent of Silicon Valley (i.e. Tencent, Alibaba, ByteDance, etc.). In the USA, however, Silicon Valley controls Washington.

    • Agree: Showmethereal
  20. antibeast says:
    @Levtraro

    The mathematics behind Big Data has been around for ages but what has changed is the technology used to collect those data. Prior to the Information Revolution, people went around to collect data using surveys or manually extract data from paper documents. After the invention of the semiconductor in Silicon Valley, the exponential progress in Information Technology as implied by Moore’s Law meant that computing, storage and networking costs have dropped consistently year after year, decade after decade to the point that it’s now fairly cheap and easy to collect vast amounts of data from people using social media in online platforms.

    Escobar posed the dilemma that control over such data by the private owners of these online platforms effectively grants the titans of Big Tech enormous power to influence the outcomes of electoral politics. Escobar calls this new ideological model “techno-feudalism” which differs from the old paradigm of industrial capitalism in that the nature of the commodity being owned and controlled has changed from steel and oil during the Industrial Age to data in this new Information Age.

    Escobar also differentiates China’s use of Big Data to enforce social harmony using its infamous “social credit” system which are online platforms owned and controlled by the State. Things like jaywalking in the streets, for example, are recorded by public surveillance cameras which collect those data to be analyzed by AI algorithms to determine the “social credit” of the pedestrian. Escobar implies this system to be influenced by the Maoist “mass-line” which is incorrect because this type of social harmony is not Maoist but Confucianist which is nothing new in East Asia societies. What’s new is the means of enforcing social harmony, from parents and elders in rural villages in the pre-Industrial Age to the high-tech “social credit” system of the Information Age.

    • Agree: Levtraro
  21. Avianthro says:

    Before anyone else, they were already conceptualizing how “cyberspace is a bio-electronic environment which is literally universal”.

    A quote from Buckminster Fuller’s “Grunch of Giants”, published 1983:

    “The new human networks’ emergence represents the natural evolutionary
    expansion into the just completed, thirty-years-in – its-buildings world-embracing,
    physical communications network. The new reorienting of human
    networking constitutes the heart-and-mind-pumped flow of life and
    intellect into the world arteries.”

    Fuller dreamed, also from Grunch:

    As world society divests itself of that which experimental evidence demonstrates to be untrue and embracingly enters into its computer the mathematical formulae of all that can be experimentally proven to be true, all the socially, selfishly malignant characteristics of the giant may vanish and the omni-pro-social-advantage-producing capabilities may prevail and flourish.

    To what degree have the architects of the “California ideology” drawn from or been directly/indirectly inspired by Fuller? Is it not the case that they may start out with humanity-uplifting dreams and yet that those dreams end up being means to their own empowerment over others (their inner subconscious power drive), that they even fool themselves into believing that their impossible dreams are coming true?

    Fuller was a dreamer who did not want to see the full nature of man (or at least wanted to believe that man’s nature could be transformed to selfless altruism via technology’s advance), and the probability that techno-feudalism would be the outcome of ongoing technological “progress”. He did not want to see that his “Critical Path” could and would be “privatized” for the Grunch’s chief shareholders.

    Man is the magisterial technology-wielding animal and is a social primate…Animals and all life forms always seek greater power as long as the limits of their tech (corporeal or extra-corporeal) and environment enable it. The true prophet was Ted Kaczynski who saw that our techno-industrial way of life would lead to our de-humanization and disconnection from nature. Seems that Durand is documenting that process at its current phase.

    • Replies: @Justvisiting
  22. @Avianthro

    The true prophet was Ted Kaczynski who saw that our techno-industrial way of life would lead to our de-humanization and disconnection from nature.

    Agreed.

    The _reason_ Ted nailed it is that Big Tech came on board _before_ we figured out how to deal with sociopaths (who tend to rise to the top of any large organization).

    Tech could fix this–if we could identify sociopaths as children and ban them from any position of authority.

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