Robin Murray on Platform Capitalism, Platform Cooperativism, and Civil Socialisation

From an in-depth conversation of Robin Murray with Jeremy Gilbert and Andrew Goffey for New Formations magazine:

(Note from editor Michel Bauwens: please note that Robin here confuses our concept of Netarchical Capitalism with that of anarcho-capitalism or distributed capitalism)

Robin Murray:

“Platforms are a new kind of economy, in which you can talk about labour, but it isn’t labour in the sense that we once conceived it, nor is the relationship between user and platform that of capital and labour. The time I spend in looking something up on Google is not creating value from which Google takes a cut. Google makes its money, like a bank or a merchant, from taking a slice out of the value embodied in the commodities or services which I might buy as a result of seeing the sales pitches from companies in the ‘real economy’.

Michel Bauwens proposes another category of appropriating capital, which he calls ‘anarcho-capitalists’, as exemplified in a currency like Bitcoin or a platform like Kickstarter. The latter kind of platforms are based on a quasi ‘dating agency’ model – matching one person to another, or one bit of information or bit of finance to another. Uber works on the basis that it tells the mobile user ‘I’ve got a cab – You’re there – I’ll pick you up’. Sites such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing allow people to operate and synchronise with each other. They encourage civil collaboration. And these different types of relationship are both being enabled and at the same time being used for profit by those controlling the platforms.

If it is not direct exploitation, what then is going on? One lens through which we could view this is that of the socialisation of labour, a concept that was central to Marx’s account of capitalist development, and in particular to his theories of technology, and the concentration and centralisation of capital. He traces the expansion of this direct socialisation from simple co-operation to manufacture through to machinofacture; and we could add systemofacture.

Contemporary capitalism has in many ways tried to reverse the movement to direct socialisation by fragmenting labour. Capital may not have read Marx but it recognises his point only too well. So it has changed strategy, through sub-contracting, automation, partnerships, or moving production to places where it will take time for the direct socialisation of labour to lead to industrial and political resistance.

Jeremy: Isn’t that the key thing? It seems to me that on one level the socialisation hasn’t stopped, it’s even intensified, but the key problem for them is to find modes of allowing that socialisation to continue and intensify without it actually having political ramifications.

Robin: It may help if we recast Marx’s discussion in terms of the socialisation of information.

Labour no longer has to be in a single factory or firm. It can talk together and organise across spatial and organisational boundaries. The internet has greatly extended the space and capacity for labour’s responses to capital.

It also opens up the potential for collaboration. The key word is open: open source, open knowledge, open learning, open data, open innovation, open production. The internet has enabled a platform like Wikipedia, or joint project like Linux, at the same time as it has given birth to Google.

This leads straight into the issue of the ‘commons’, because the socialisation of information, and its sharing, creates the potential for an autonomous collective intelligence on a planetary scale. In this new economy of the commons, the form of license becomes a key area of contest, about who owns what, who has access to the collectively produced knowledge and so on.

This in turn leads to a third form of socialisation, which we might call ‘civil socialization’. I would like to distinguish it from the socialisation of information, for it is about the capacity of us as civil beings to socialise directly, to act directly, to discuss directly, to produce directly: to produce not only ideas but also, say, an open-sourced car, by collaborating. Bauwens has established a core platform for this new collaboration, the P2P Foundation. The extent of peer to peer collaboration is already remarkable. It is bursting through the bounds of the old form of socialised civility – which tended to be bound by space – yet is still able to link this new ‘collaboration without boundaries’ back to specific places.

We talk about optimism, but it’s not a question of pessimism and optimism. It is a question of where are the possibilities, and, through understanding the contours and modes of operation of the new economy, whether or not we can collectively organise ourselves as so many communities of interest, including labour, in other words as directly socialised citizens.

I’d like to draw a key distinction between the current phase and what has gone before. As Marx pointed out, time economy was at the core of capital. Saving time has been the driver of technological innovation and capital accumulation. Speed has now reached the point that US stockbrokers site their offices near servers rather than Wall Street in order to gain a second or two advantage over their trader competitors. Time is measured in femtoseconds or billionths of a second.

Platforms are about space rather than time. Geographically they reduce space, but their aim is to expand in the social space of those using their platforms. They act as socialisers of this social space, and although netarchical capital then connects this economy of social space back into the conventional commodity economy of time, the possibilities of an alternative ‘social space’ centred round platforms on the global scale is quite new. Given the many gathering material planetary constraints on the ungoverned growth of capital, I think we can see emerging a new economy of space that potentially challenges the prevailing current industrial economy of time.

Jeremy: Can I ask you both – where do Snowden’s revelations relate to this, or what do they tell us about the state’s response to this? I will start off with a suggestion which you can respond to.

Partly I’ve been thinking about the Deleuze control essay – and it’s so minimal and suggestive that everyone has their own version of it – but the version of it I use when I teach is that there are several key aspects. The argument is that, compared to disciplinary society, which we could say matches up almost identically to Fordism, system management is inherently less concerned with content, less concerned with the ideas in people’s heads, less concerned with norms. It’s more concerned with mapping and managing relationships and with anticipating behaviours, and so the Snowden thing always seems to me to be a really interesting illustration of this, in that, compared to the way the state was operating throughout the Cold War, they don’t really care that much about the content of what people are saying.

They’re not trying to map that too much, and they’re not trying to force what people think into particular patterns. What they’re trying to do is make sure they know absolutely everything about who’s talking to whom. Rather than knowing about the content of the messages, they’re bothered about the metadata, and they’re bothered about trying to anticipate patterns of behaviour. So I think that seems to say something about the way the state, or institutions of government – whether that’s corporate government or state government – are increasingly concerned with this question of relationships, and mapping, understanding and pre-empting relationships. I was thinking when you were talking about that ‘dating’ model, that, essentially, the function of the system or platform is to generate links, to generate connections, to generate relationships, to anticipate likely relationships between different units of information … So there’s something there, and I suppose the thing I’m wondering about is the extent to which – just as the disciplinary state at one point in its history becomes the mechanism by which capital is itself disciplined, arguably, during the high years of Fordist social democracy – it might be necessary to think, to some extent, about institutions of government in the twenty-first century, even progressive ones: that they are going to have to operate according to similar mechanisms; that they’re also going to have to be about the facilitation and anticipation of relationships.”


Source: Post-Post-Fordism in the Era of Platforms. Robin Murray talks to Jeremy Gilbert and Andrew Goffey. New Formations, 2015

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