Then Agrippa said unto Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28).
Jesus, Karl Marx, and F.A. Hayek walk into a bar. They take a seat and stare at one another in silence.
“So,” Jesus says, “what do you guys want to talk about?”
“Capitalism,” they say almost in unison, glancing sideways at one another, trying not to miss Jesus’ reaction.
Jesus rolls his eyes, sighs, and stares out the window at the sidewalk, just outside, and its foot-traffic of people not bothering to look up or at where they’re going, staring into their phones.
“Can’t you guys talk about anything else?” Jesus says. “I mean, look at them,” gesturing toward the window, “they’re all lost, captured by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and who knows what else. And don’t even get me started on TikTok.”
“That’s sort of the point,” Karl says, nodding his head knowingly as he follow’s Jesus’ gaze.
“Yeah,” says Friedrich, “it’s dead.”
“What’s dead?” Jesus asks.
“Capitalism,” Karl and Friedrich blurt in perfect unison.
This is the overarching point of Mckenzie Wark’s compact volume, Capital Is Dead.1 It’s dead and it’s been replaced by . . . something . . . different . . . worse. Wark, a professor of media and cultural studies at The New School, draws on the work of several other writers who have added a modifier to the noun capitalism in order to describe the “strangeness of this [current] state of affairs.”2 The two modifiers which have received the greatest, widespread media attention are surveillance3 and platform.4 Both of these new modifiers put an emphasis on the data that is generated within a commercial system mediated almost entirely by online technology and the corporations that own the rights to both the technology and the data. The problem is that the data is generated by us, the consumer-user-customer-client, but it belongs to the corporations who collect it, store it, sell it, and analyze it. In most critiques of this new system, a heavy emphasis is placed on the dual aspects of privacy and behavior modification, and rightly so. These corporations are not only using the data they collect to generate behavioral profiles, but they’re using those behavioral profiles to modify behavior by turning our own behavior-generated data against us. Perhaps the most troubling and well-known example being the Cambridge Analytica scandal over influence in U.S. elections. Wark recognizes these problems, but does not stop there. Adopting a Marxist point of view, she asks: “Is this really capitalism at all?”
Summarizing Marx’s thought about anything is difficult, if not nearly impossible. However, if one were to summarize Marx’s definition of capitalism, it would be that it is a certain form of production in which one class–the capitalists–own all the means of production whereby another class–the laborers–are exploited for profit by alienating them from the produce of their own labor. For Marx, this was analogous to the feudal landlord class who exploited the labor of peasants who worked land they no longer owned and were, therefore, alienated from enjoying that which their labor produced.5 This definition of capitalism as a means of production is the primary break from more pro-capitalist definitions that see it as a method and means of exchange. Max Weber, for example, adopted a qualified-version of capitalism as markets.6 But perhaps no other writer has defended the market view of capitalism against the Marxist focus on means of production like F. A. Hayek.7 Interestingly, for my purposes here, anyway, Hayek had a unique way of explaining market economics in epistemological terms.8
Essentially, Hayek saw the market as a solution to the problem of dispersed knowledge within society. Everyone participating in the market–any market–brings their own piece of the larger epistemic picture to the market. They then act within the market based on their own limited information as well as the knowledge gained from the market itself. That knowledge, according to Hayek, was revealed to market participants in the form of prices, at least in the usual sense of an economic market. This was one way that a centrally-planned economy, such as in the Communist Soviet Union, could be critiqued. The central planners must assume complete knowledge absent the workings of a market. Hayek’s point was that no such complete knowledge exists, except insofar as it exists as the market itself. In a way, Hayek’s argument has an almost metaphysical quality to it.
The reason I bring this all up is to return to my fictional (in case you hadn’t realized it) dialogue at the top of this post. Based on the critique of Wark and others, I think that it is fair to argue that both Marx and Hayek, as much as they would have disagreed otherwise, would have affirmed Wark’s assessment that surveillance capitalism or platform capitalism is really not capitalism at all. It is not capitalist in the Marxist sense because it isn’t about ownership of the means of production. Instead, it’s about ownership of data, the means of production for which is ourselves, our bodies, our minds, and our behavior. This has led some to argue, based on Wark’s argument, that this new state of affairs resembles feudalism more than capitalism, an argument I find compelling.9 Nor is this new state of affairs capitalist in Hayek’s view of capitalism because it is predicated on near total accumulation, control, and use of information by a small set of corporate actors that resembles centrally-planned communism more than capitalism. Thus, whatever capitalism is, both Hayek and Marx, properly interpreted, would agree that this ain’t it, even if Marx would say it’s more capitalist than communist and, Hayek, vice-versa.
I bring Jesus into the conversation because I think Christianity offers a valid critique of all three positions. To Marx, Christian ethics might say that it isn’t just about who owns what but what one does with whatever one owns or earns (c.f., Proverbs 14:31; 19:17). In other words, property–of whatever kind–can be used for good or evil. That’s not to deny that certain “capitalist” ideas are unjust, but it is to say that one should be careful when painting to not use too-wide a brush. To Hayek, Jesus might point out that there is at least one thing that even he (Jesus) doesn’t know (Matthew 24:36). As far as omniscience or even near-complete knowledge goes, only God, and not the market, can lay claim to it. Finally, mediating between the two, Jesus might combine both of these criticisms against what Wark’s vectoralist class does with the information it collects and the assumptions it makes about its rights to that information.
This, ultimately, is why I included that Wark’s argument almost–almost–persuades me to adopt a Marxist position. If ever there was a clear and undeniable example of Marx’s conception of alienation, then the collection and use of user data by the big tech corporations is that example. It is morally repulsive to think that the way information on individuals, groups, and entire populations is being collected, analyzed, and exploited could be ethical under any legitimate system. That corporations could use social media and their virtual monopoly over the lines by which information is communicated in order to manipulate the electorate calls the entire democratic project into question. And, going one frightening step further, it begs the question: if these corporations–Wark’s vectoralist class who control almost all information, if for no other reason than by the mere fact that they control the vectors by which it travels–can manipulate entire populations to change government, what’s stopping them from manipulating governments in order to change populations? To my mind, that is perhaps the scariest of all the implications. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA notwithstanding, the U.S. government does not own the fiber optic cables and networked hubs by which all this data is collected. Who is more powerful, he who has access to data or he who can control how that data is communicated in the first place?
Alas, however, I cannot fully embrace the Marxist perspective even if I can appreciate its insights into why our tech plutocracy is dangerous. Nor, for that matter, can I fully embrace Hayek’s apotheosis of the free market.
Nonetheless, I can appreciate one other aspect of the Marxist critique.
When Paul pleaded his case before King Agrippa in Acts 26, there was certainly an element of self-interest on Agrippa’s part. To give in when Paul asked him whether he believed in the prophets–“I know that you believe,” Paul said to him–Agrippa, whether he believed or not, was trapped by his position. Similarly, I can appreciate the Marxist retort that I cling to capitalism because I benefit from it. However, that is not my only reason. I freely admit that much of what Marx said had a certain value, one might even say truth. But he did not have a complete picture, just like Hayek’s market does not have a complete picture.
Thus, as much as I am open to employing a Marxist critique to certain ends, I am unwilling to adopt a totalizing perspective, whether Marxist, capitalist, or anything else. Doing so would be like willingly chaining oneself within Plato’s cave, satisfied that this shape of the shadows is more accurate than that from the other side of the room. Only in the light of the sun–and the Son–are shadows dispelled.
- Mckenzie Wark, Capital Is Dead. Is this something worse? (New York: Verso, 2019).
- Ibid., 6.
- Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019).
- Nick Srnicek, “The Challenges of Platform Capitalism: Understanding the Logic of a New Business Model,” Juncture 23, no. 4 (March 2017): 254-257, https://doi.org/10.1111/newe.12023.
- Carlos Astarita, “Karl Marx and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism,” International Critical Thought 8, no. 2 (April 2018): 249-263, https://doi.org/10.1080/21598282.2018.1478248.
- Wolfgang J. Mommsen, “From Agrarian Capitalism to the ‘Spirit’ of Modern Capitalism: Max Weber’s Approaches to the Protestant Ethic,” Max Weber Studies 5, no. 2 (July 2005): 185-203, https://doi.org/10.15543/MWS/2005/2/3.
- Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom with The Intellectuals and Socialism (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2005), https://cdn.mises.org/Road%20to%20serfdom.pdf.
- F.A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review 35, no. 4 (September 1945): 519-530, https://fee.org/articles/the-use-of-knowledge-in-society.
- Jodi Dean, “Communism or Neo-Feudalism?” New Political Science 42, no. 1 (January 2020): 1-17, https://doi.org/10.1080/07393148.2020.1718974.