In our studies on Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil on “the domain of freedom”, we encountered the problem of how in advanced industrial capitalism the pursuit of consumption which from time immemorial has been associated with “free time” or “leisure” and thus with the “absence of work as toil” has really and truly metamorphosed into a frightfully wasteful cult and labour of consumption, that is to say, in a set of activities as toilsome and burdensome as any imaginable wage labour in a capitalist enterprise or industry. It seems obvious that such a paradoxical if ironic and indeed almost tragic transformation of leisure, of freedom from the curse of hard labour, could occur only under some form of compulsion and distortion or even perversion of human needs to the point the human activity of consumption turns into a monstrous extension and voracious vanification of the essential purpose of production - so much so that then it becomes impossible to distinguish between production and consumption, not so much in the industrial as in the ergonomic and psychological sense. Once consumption becomes an end in itself, an activity wholly detached from leisure and free time, then we must begin to question the entire purpose of production for the sake of endless mindless pouring out of waste.
The crux of the problem clearly resides in the fact that workers as wage labourers in capitalist industry are placed in a position where wasteful consumption is turned from superfluity into “necessity” through a variety of financial, occupational and cultural pressures that seem almost irresistible to the majority of the working population. However implausible it may sound, there can be little doubt, and there is a mountain of evidence to show, that refusal or inability “to join the rat race” will often result not simply in a lowering of high living standards but indeed in the relegation of wage and salary workers to the borders of poverty. One of the many ways in which this process occurs in capitalism is through th phenomenon of inflation which forces workers to rely on their incomes, and so to keep working, because wither they do not have sufficient assets to avoid work or else those assets depreciate rapidly. This takes place on the side of income and personal consumption through purchases of goods and services. But there is an even more significant aspect of inflation that concerns standards of living through the diminished provision of public and social services. Because these do not directly affect income and sold items, they are not included in measures of inflation. Yet it is obvious that they are at least as significant as items of personal expenditure.
We are not going to enter the details of how this phenomenon occurs under advanced industrial capitalism here. What we intend to do instead is to outline and explore the ways in which the intensification in both quantity and speed of the sphere of capitalist circulation and consumption of goods and services, which serve in turn to intensify production in terms of output much more than in terms of productivity, leads deleteriously to the heightened dependency of workers on wasteful and worthless as well as passive consumption in terms of real emancipatory wealth and also, as a direct and obvious result, to the transfer of real wealth in terms of living standards from the working producers to the enterprises providing these superfluous “services”.
It is at least conceivable that once human beings are able to satisfy a certain number of needs, they will seek to reduce arduous effort in exchange for leisure and free time. It is at that point that the necessity or incentive to work, to exchange one's living activity for a wage that is a claim on dead labour, diminishes or wanes to an extent that endangers the survival or the grip of the wage on workers - which is the entire basis of capitalism. At that point, it is a matter of survival for capitalist industry to be able to compress the necessary portion of the working day by expanding the reserve army of the unemployed and by heightening the workers' compulsion to work, that is, by increasing their propensity to consume - and to consume especially products and services that do not emancipate them from wage labour. Hence, both the quantity as well as the quality or nature of the goods and services produced and supplied by capitalist industry have to be designed in such as manner as to induce workers to submit themselves to the yoke of alienated labour. The thermometre of this dependency on wage labour is inflation.
Given that, as hypothesised, workers have already reached a level of satisfaction in terms of living standards that allows them to subtract themselves from the toil of industrial labour, it is then imperative for capital to excogitate new ways of creating fresh needs and wants that reinforce dependency on wage labour. Given that the production of goods involves the use of physical resources which may soon become scarce and may give rise to unacceptable environmental degradation, it is then again imperative for capital to turn to the area of services also because, apart from lower environmental impact, they are far harder to assess in terms of real cost and far easier to be priced according to monopolistic practices and are also far more amenable to psychological addiction! These services become then the equivalent of the opium of the masses which serve the manifold purpose of justifying costs unrelated to real effort (intellectual property), to create individual addiction and, not least, to reinforce mass allegiance, to the capitalist system itself and its consumptionist and individualist orientation. Consumerism is at once a self-perpetuating system of exploitation in production and of propagandist enslavement in consumption.
Yet, in terms of human needs, it is evident that the services provided increasingly by capitalist enterprise rapidly lose legitimacy because, first, they are dispensable, and second, their very ideological nature invites the questioning and consequent delegitimation of their “necessity” and of their “orientation” or behavioural content. This aspect also begins to affect the profitability of capital in terms of the exclusion of segments of the population from their provision and more important in terms of the transfer and exaction of profits by service providers from industrial producers. Importantly, service providers tend to concentrate on the “circulation” side of capital - that is, the provision of goods to consumers through speedier delivery and targeted advertising. This is the aspect of Big Tech that increasingly harms capitalist profitability because it represents the faux frais of capital circulation. The higher and costlier this moment of capitalist circulation, the lower is the profitability of capital because these services are more likely to be superfluous and invite rent-seeking on the expanding sector of capitalist enterprise providing them. This is an essential point to grasp.
Again, up until recently, capitalist enterprise sought to produce physical goods for consumption that required far less “marketing” because they responded to immediate physiological needs of workers or consumers. But as these physiological needs are saturated, it becomes imperative for capital to exasperate consumption, at first through advertising and now, with
THE CAPITALIST PENETRATION AND SATURATION OF THE SOCIAL FABRIC - From Formal Subsumption to Totalization
Autonomy of production from consumption. Formal and real subsumption. Excessive attention devoted to production; too little to the sphere of circulation and consumption. This is due in large part to initial formal subsumption. Real subsumption is later extended from production to consumption by means of the control of population activity through the evermore intrusive collection of “data” and “suggestion” of “options”, but above all through the shrinking of the physical and mental life-world of social agents and society overall. Totalization represents the “nationalisation” of “markets”, and therefore the instigation of autarky in essence if not yet entirely in extent.
The advent of the internet constitutes an epochal change in the operation of capitalism in one respect, which we call “epochal” because we insist it is the most significant, to the degree that it allows capitalist enterprise, production and consumption, unprecedented access to and control of the autonomous action, and therefore the freedom, of members of the society of capital. If we describe freedom broadly as the ability to think and to move autonomously, that is, with a large degree of independent decision-making, untrammelled and not initiated at the behest or suggestion of other individuals or social agents, then we can argue that the entire history of capitalism is one of constant, if gradual, and unilateral as well as unidirectional or univocal intrusions and invasions on the part of capitalist enterprise and industry in the individual lives of social agents. These intrusions and invasions have now reached a new plateau that seriously restricts the sphere of individual autonomy as well as the freedom of social agents.
In this regard, the expanded magnitude, penetration and intensity of internet services engenders a disproportionately higher ideological element to consumption than did traditional capitalist emphasis on the production of goods.
The essential difference between the process of production and that of circulation in capitalism is that the former is directly related to the satisfaction of human needs and is therefore unlimited, whereas the latter is limited by the sphere of production, first, and second, it is a cost on production that can be reduced to zero only if produced goods are consumed immediately upon their production. It follows that in the overall process of capital valorisation (production) and realisation (circulation), the greater is the share of the value produced going to the sphere of circulation, the less is the corresponding ability of goods production to satisfy human needs. This distinction and difference has portentous implications, of course, for the analysis and political trajectory of capitalist enterprise. The greater is the share of value going to capitalist enterprises in the sphere of circulation, the harder it becomes for capitalism as a mode of production to preserve real legitimacy in terms of “delivering the goods” or satisfying needs and in terms of maintaining given levels of productivity. In effect, once circulation takes greater shares of profitability, the political “room to manoeuvre” for the bourgeoisie is drastically reduced.
Furthermore, as the role of productive workers and entrepreneurs recedes, capitalist enterprise comes increasingly to resemble feudal economies where productivity and social and geographical mobility lags and profits can be realised only through transfers of value from production to circulation between sectors and from one capitalist to another within the circulation sector.
The crucial most basic or fundamental aspect of capitalism on which to focus is the notion of “formally free labour-power”. In Marx and Weber this phrase is applied only in relation to the ability of workers to move between capitalist employers and also geographically (they are not slaves). But it can be seen from our analytical premises on the circulation of capital (capital is “value in motion”) that “formal freedom” must refer to and encompass also the ability of workers to dispose of their wages freely, and therefore to be free to consume according too their basic needs. This is why in capitalism must be paid wages in money and not in goods, as a form of barter. This is the fundamental distinction between feudalism and capitalism that is gradually but steadily vanishing as money fades as a method of payment and comes increasingly to coincide with the identity of the worker in broad terms.
In other words, the autonomy or freedom of workers to choose where to work and how to consume begins to wither in late capitalism.
In qualitative terms of penetration of the sphere of individual choice and social and political freedom, we can state that the era of totalization constitutes the end stage of capitalism, its com-pletion and therefore also its self-abolition or surcease, its supersession (Selbst-Aufhebung, Nietzsche in Genealogie and Hegel in Logic). This has not occurred yet in quantitative terms or in extension, however, because vast territorial or geographic and demographic areas of the globe are still not subject to this final stage of capitalist transformation. Thus far, most accounts of the latest informatic phase of capitalism have emphasised the aspect of surveillance because of the obvious intrusion of internet services in the daily lives of their users and customers. What these accounts leave out, however, are the most important aspects of this intrusion in terms of the nature and the future of capitalism itself: these aspects have to do, first, with the monitoring of user choices or customer demand - which is not itself a “neutral” process, as we shall see -, and second with the manipulation of that information or data in ways that do not merely influence but in actual fact determine the choices, the conduct, and the demand for services of users and customers, and therefore of the working class in particular.
This aspect or aspects are fundamental to understanding why and how capitalism is now reaching the end of its historical ascendancy and is indeed in a trajectory of gradual yet seemingly inevitable decline. Of course, if we wish to trace the trajectory of capitalist ascent and decline we must first understand with some precision what are the “essential” features of capitalism not purely in quantitative terms but indeed in terms of “the nature and causes”, as Adam Smith described it, of capitalism, or what he understood to be “the wealth of nations”. Without an endeavour and ability to understand the “physics” or nature of capitalism, its whys and wherefore, it is impossible to divine or seek to predict its past and its future. (Of course, any explication of the past of a social system is a process of Epimethean “divination” in that we are called upon to interpret the history of this social phenomenon.
There is a distinct and settled tendency in analyses and critiques of capitalism to treat this made of production overall as being very stable, almost immutable throughout its history, not just in its fundamental elements, which are rarely identified, but even in it’s phenomenological description which, although as the term suggests is very complex, often in exact imprecise and variegated, still manages to refer to its historical and economic reality as fundamentally unchanging or static. As we are hoping to show, however, and as some of the best historians of capitalism (mainly Marxist) have demonstrated, capitalism is not just “value in motion” but it is also a social reality in constant transformation and development as meta-morphosis or, the better to capture the concept of “development” or “growth” (rather than the incorrect biological one of “evolution”, as trans-crescence.
Due to its sociological, political and economic novelty, we shall develop unfamiliar terminology to encapsulate conceptually the revolutionary developments we are about to describe. In the broadest sense, by way of sweeping generalisation, we may periodise the several stages of growing capitalist totalization from inception as follows:
I. The period of formal subsumption of production and circulation (market capitalism, First Industrial Revolution);
II. The period of real subsumption of production and circulation (industrial capitalism, Second Industrial Revolution);
III. The period of real subsumption of consumption, or the era of totalization as the integration of production and consumption in terms of orchestration and regimentation (planned capitalism).
This is my CENTRAL THESIS about the decline of capitalism into "Feudalism" led and caused by Big Tech:
"Renewables generation is more farming than industry. Wind and solar generators have good days and bad days, bumper seasons and lean ones. Wind energy currently supplies about 20 per cent of Europe’s electricity."
Like tourism and all "service industries", Big Tech is like farming, IT IS NOT INDUSTRY! Because it assumes and enforced self-referential, closed-loop demand! That is, demand that IS NOT AUTONOMOUS! BIG TECH REQUIRED AND ENFORCES THE ELIMINATION OR SUPPRESSION OF CLASS CONFLICT IN INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTION THROUGH THE SUBJECTION OF CIRCULATION!
Because production no longer originates from conflictual, antagonistic worker ("household") demand, investment is no longer "capitalistic" because there is no "expanded reproduction" or "accumulation of surplus value". Essentially, as in Japan, the economy becomes STAGNANT and enters a cycle of decline.
Big Tech merely collects RENTAL PAYMENTS through monopolistic control of consumption that then limits the scope of demand and therefore also of production.
Important to realise that Big Tech is a symptom and the main effect of industrial capitalism reaching its limits of overpopulation and overconsumption, both of which are required for the extraction of profit or surplus value (as expanded control over living labour) -, limits imposed by environmental crises, the depletion of natural resources. This depletion is an insurmountable barrier to capital because its existence (the efficient use of scarce resources that is the major apology for capitalism) is a pre-requisite for the existence of capital: the enforced turning of shared resources into "scarcity".
Colin Crouch on Capitalism and Democracy:
We have not yet arrived at a situation where corporate dominance of our politics is complete; otherwise all consumer protection and labour laws would already have been abolished. But that is where we are headed, boosted by continuing growth in inequality and the mutual reinforcement of political and economic power. Democracy in some form probably continues to be the best available shell for capitalism; but the reverse may no longer be true.
"These excursions into literary history lend the proceedings a certain gravitas, but they also highlight the relative monotony of the narrator’s own wanderings—the world that he finds on the street is dishearteningly similar to the one on his phone. Advertisements no longer restrict themselves to billboards and storefronts but take up an ever-larger portion of what used to be public space. They flicker on screens that tower over city streets and plazas; their coaxing imperatives evoke the dull urgency of clickbait, and employ a blank universalism. “Old people in advertisements smile with a certain optimism,” the narrator notes. “Young people laugh and laugh, opening their mouths wide and showing their gums and tongues.” The actual people whom he observes frequently disappoint and disgust him. They eat chicken from Popeyes while ignoring a man who lies on a sidewalk, his chest heaving; they avoid so much as a twitch of acknowledgment when sharing an elevator with a stranger. New York, the narrator says, is “a city of zombies glued to cell phone screens.” In the age of Google Maps, it is difficult to follow Benjamin’s exhortation to get lost."
(New Yorker, August 30, 2021)
"Rather than gaining the depth of perspective that the past provides, “To Walk Alone in the Crowd” seems to cave in to the present, mimicking its superficiality and self-importance, channelling its short attention span and its addiction to topicality. (Trump is a recurring fixation.) The book’s title comes to suggest not the half belonging that Woolf attributes to the street rambler but a more common, and more contemporary, form of limbo: staring at a phone pinging with news alerts, ads perpetually popping up, stuck between solitude and collectivity and never reaching a true sense of either. “The trivial and the apocalyptic appeared in such close proximity that they sometimes seemed to turn into each other,” the narrator observes. The novel replicates this condition rather than resisting it.
One morning in New York City, when the sun has come out and the snow has started to melt, the narrator scans the terrain:
‘A stark air of extinction clings especially to things that have only partially emerged: a woolen glove like a hand coming out of the earth, a Dunkin’ Donuts plastic coffee cup with a straw still sticking through the lid, the corner of a flip-top box of Marlboros, a ghastly toilet scrubber, the broken skeleton of an umbrella, a bird cage, fortunately empty, a bucket of KFC with a few leftover pieces nibbled by rats, a whole rat, still frozen, emerging from the snow, a pile of dog shit, a woolen cap, a plastic fork, a crushed pigeon, a baby diaper, a sponge covered in hair, a microwave, the black suction cup of a toilet plunger, thousands of cigarette butts.’
Perhaps climate change is on the narrator’s mind; many of the headlines he records concern that all-consuming threat. Whatever the source of his malaise, the flâneur’s classic gesture of unearthing leads, here, not to imagined human stories or a contemplation of the city’s haunted past but to a catalogue of used-up products, a few marked by multinational brand names, none pointing to anything beyond itself. Throughout the book, it is difficult to tell which city the wandering narrator is in unless he explicitly names it. There may be a tacit critique in this approach: have big cities across the globe become products, too, soulless and interchangeable? Still, there is something self-defeating in an homage to flânerie that offers little sense of place.
What is really missing, though, is humanity—or specific, ordinary instances of it. Muñoz Molina’s narrator embodies the detachment of the flâneur but not his capacity for empathy."
Here the critic is imputing to the writer personally, Muñoz Molina, a "narrowing" or “closure” of the human mindscape almost solely attributable to the confinement of our lives to "screens", "the closing of the mind" (Arthur Bloomfield, who makes the same mistake at the cultural level), a quality, a personal frame of mind, as if these were the outcome of a spontaneous disposition and not one merely reflecting most disturbingly the writer’s own internalization of social conditions, a veritable stultified social environment, imposed by the Big Tech enterprises spawned by late capitalism. As always, late capitalist elites, uncritically propagated by this critic, unwittingly shift the blame for what capitalist enterprise imposes on entire societies to the failings or inclinations of individuals! These critics and analysts assume that people make autonomous “choices” unaffected by the social environment orchestrated, manufactured and manipulated by capital.
"Mostly, though, a virtual world hands even more power to technology giants that many argue have already amassed too much. The last few years have laid bare the dark side to mobile computing and social networking. The contrast to tech executives’ sunny visions of the metaverse with the dystopian take of the source novel are telling: In the book, social status in the metaverse can be enhanced by coding skills, and Snow Crash is something peddled in the metaverse like a drug that can cause brain damage to users. Even while the protagonist is collecting marketable information for money."
Appeared in the August 28, 2021, print edition as 'The Real Problems Of the Virtual World.'
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