Varoufakis’ Techno-Feudalism

On digital Fiefdom and Post-Capitalist Desire.

Note: This post will be the first, I hope, of a series of micro-blogging attempts by me. Micro in the sense of being more fluid and created in the moment rather than planned endeavors. Meditation rather than Theory. I hope this doesn’t fall far out of my typical style but might also allow me to speak on a greater variety of topics.

I believe it was around a year ago that Yanis Varoufakis, the iconoclastic former finance minister of Greece, posited that we have moved “beyond capitalism” and into something worse. Now whether it’s techno- or neo-, comparisons between the present state and feudalism such as Bull’s Neo-medievalism are hardly new. What makes Varoufakis’ assertion different in my opinion is that it tries to be more than metaphor and more than a comment on some aspect of our political and economic system but an assertion of a new phase of historical development. To briefly outline his view, Varoufakis believes that a combination of austerity and government stimulus towards large corporations has caused the leaders of the financial world to move away from investment, production and even profit as they know there is no money to be made that way and that should they collapse the governments of the world will simply bail them out. This has created an environment of tech-giants that within their micro-markets (e.g. Amazon) can act like lords.

This is of course not an incredibly developed theory but certainly an idea worth investigating, especially when keeping in mind debates around the “essence” of capitalism in market socialist circles. At this point however I would like to add some thoughts to it. The first is perhaps a critique though not necessarily one. The comparison between feudalism is of course salient when taken in isolation and I don’t want to go after it with cheap gotchas like further comparisons to say.. malls, but when one thinks about the rise of services and subscriptions, that is the retention of tools by the companies that sell them, I am reminded of something different than feudalism. I rather, think of enclosure. The professionalization, the sanitation and retention of tools and spaces is reminiscent of the enclosure of the commons. Naturally the internet was for the most part always an assembly of private entities but transcendentally, doesn’t it feel like what used to be the frontier days are now over? That all that was wild is now parceled away into the safe? And of course, safety and wildness are contentious categories, but does this story not mirror history in a way regardless? Podcast hosts, influencers, virtual hustlegrinders and others sprout from the former common grounds as the new digital working class which of course calls into question the idea of a “techno-feudalism” and replaces it rather with a techno-capitalism. Though I think that might be only when we think of the virtual space as “another market” and “another part of the superstructure”. Instead I would like to posit another possibility, of the virtual as a different kind of substance, more sticky than the real. And perhaps this new sticky coat of paint is, among other things, that which turns capitalism into something different. With the rise of NFTs could we not imagine a future in which, for better or for worse, what we chase is no longer the material but rather the virtual? Maybe such science fiction scenarios are not as outlandish as once thought? And as a side note, if we need to collapse our production for fears of climate catastrophe, would it be so harmful to replace those physical wants with virtual ones assuming some level of efficiency?

But besides the new object of desire in this new potential system we can also ask ourselves, what motivates the subjects? Both to desire and to engage politically. Here again I don’t want to create a theory but rather supplement thoughts of post-capitalism with, I hope, new doors of thinking that I hope will lead somewhere and to do that I must turn back to Marx. For Marx the basis of his materialism was the economic because that is where the human starts and is the primary way it’s history develops but it would be vulgar to understand him as a purely economic thinker, in truth what he was concerned with was real human activity as well as the relations that go with it. Naturally out of that production and work become a main focus as it is, historically, one of humanity’s greatest time sinks. From sheep herding to assembly lines in factories, work days could once easily take an entire day off one’s hands. That was even true if a farmer had an entire season off since, on the days that he was working on, he was entirely determined by that work. Nowadays we have much greater portions of “official” but also practical leisure time and with the development of institutions such as the culture industry leisure has become a much larger portion of our (real human) activity. If only with a certain amount of money one can acquire capital to become a capitalist, is it then perhaps also true that if enough leisure time is accumulated one can become an enjoyer rather than a proletarian? And is that maybe at “fault” for activist organizations nowadays thinking more and more about recovery time and as “activism as fun”? Or, maybe it explains in part the increasing proportion of “culture war” in our politics. Conversely, during pre-civilization one might assume that, with the absence of a strict divide between work and leisure, there might have been a great potential energy that lead to the explosion of experiments that created our civilization that cannot be explained if both concepts are simply thought away. Now all of this might just be an elaboration on decadence, but at this point I cannot let go of the idea that leisure might be a key part in the development of history, a key cog in the gearwork of the dialectic if one wills. And, if leisure is a greater part of our history then, in a more pronounced way than ever we might live in a “libidinal” economy.

At last though I want to bring up one more crucial thing and that is post-capitalism in general. Out of the thought of Marx and Engels the idea was popularized that what would follow capitalism is, almost by necessity, socialism. That the two opposing classes would collapse into each other and with that explosion history would finally end. Of course that thought didn’t last, socialisme ou barbarie opens the possibility for something else and my hope is that we might again think of the future in novel ways, even if those ways are not all the most liberating ones. At the very least we should be careful with historical necessity but in a more hopeful sense we might be able to hope for some new, fresh, productive thought. To quote Mark Fisher:

What I’m hoping will happen in the next decade is a new kind of theory emerging from people who have been deep-cooked in post-Fordist Capitalism, who take cyberspace for granted and who lack nostalgia for the exhausted paradigms of the old left.

Further Reading/Watching:

Karl Marx, Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets[. 1932.

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