Editors' Introduction

Volume 33  Issue 2  April 2021

As we write this introduction, Big Tech has banned the sitting president of the United States of America from almost all social-media platforms for inciting insurrection and sedition. This may be mainly because, at this point, less than two weeks before the end of his term, those at the commanding heights of industrial, merchant, and finance capital have already abandoned him. The National Association of Manufacturers, the foremost representative body of the corporate United States, announced on the very day of the swarming of the Capitol that the vice president should “seriously consider” invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and assume the powers and duties of the office as acting president on the ground of the sitting president’s “inability” to do so in a sound manner. With the green light given by the corporate United States to let Pére Trump go, Big Tech, in order to secure the conditions of existence of a “peaceful” transition of power at the center of the empire, was able to take action and deplatform him and his movement—a measure that they had not previously taken consistently against those organizing violent assaults (e.g., violence against the Rohingya). Yet make no mistake: Big Tech is in the thick of it, up to its virtual nose. This is not only because—under the conditions of pandemic and isolation—e-commerce, social media, and streaming platforms have become increasingly powerful entities that shape and profit from our daily routines of shopping, communicating, and entertaining. It is also because social-media giants, for the last four years, have generated immense advertising revenues from being the platform on which Trump conducted his presidency and harnessed and manipulated the energies of his growing protofascist movement—a process amplified by the algorithms used to maximize time on platform and, hence, advertising dollars. The pure and vicarious pleasure of Trump’s ban (with all of its intended or unintended irony) should not occlude the fact that Big Tech and the new economies that it spearheads has garnered unprecedented powers, not only in the narrowly defined economic sense, in which a company like Amazon wields both monopolistic (as a merchant capital) and monopsonistic powers (as the world’s second largest employer next to Walmart with 1.2 million workers), but also at the level of subjectivity, in terms of shaping the public discourse through incessant algorithms, eerie shadow banning, or creepy smart advertising.

This sinister opacity of the silent framing of our lifeworlds through online platforms indeed has a magical aura. In her introduction to this special issue, Zoe Sherman begins with a playful discourse analysis of the presumed magical powers of technology, inviting us to understand the social role of technology in our world. Sherman, who coedited this issue together with Yahya M. Madra, proposes that technology is no more a magic bullet than magic is and calls for repeating Marx’s gesture of traversing commodity fetishism: “Recognition of class conflict is thus a disenchantment.”

This is precisely what Shahram Azhar practices in his essay on the political economy of pay-per-click business models as he carefully dissects the capitalist class and nonclass processes that are conducted on, around, and in relation to a social site such as Facebook. Azhar’s class analysis reveals that Facebook’s revenues—as a company that sells the “clicks” of users to clients who want to purchase the service of “promotion”—comprises surplus value appropriated from productive workers employed by the company; surplus value appropriated from indirectly productive workers, outsourced through employment agencies across the world, who maintain and reproduce the “user network”; subsumed class payments received from independent content uploaders, which may be organized through a variety of class processes; and, finally, a range of nonclass payments such as monopoly pricing, share earnings, and so forth. In other words, Azhar’s class analysis disenchants the workings of a social-media giant and embeds what appears to be a virtual platform into a differentiated and concrete network of class processes.

Stan Harrison’s treatment of platforms and ISPs systematically explores a thesis pertaining to the return of “rent” as the dominant form of value extraction. He does so by mobilizing categories historically used to make sense of agrarian economies—such as sharecropping, ground rent, and tribute—to analyze these cutting-edge “new” economies. Harrison’s analysis is particularly useful in that it reveals the multitiered structure of the global network of ISPs through which the Global North extracts tributes from the Global South.

Evangelos Papadimitropoulos shifts the accent on noncapitalist from pre- to postcapitalist and explores the possible lines of flight that may move us from platform capitalism to a commons-based model. In this exploration, Papadimitropoulos juxtaposes platform cooperativism (as proposed, most notably, by Trebor Scholz) to commons-based open cooperativism (as proposed by Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis) and provides an assessment of each model’s resilience with respect to the challenges that each tends to face—in particular, but not exclusively, the competitive pressures that come from the brutal fact that these experimentations have to coexist with capitalist forms. This sobering assessment is premised, however, upon “a simple yet radical idea: great improvements in production could be achieved by reducing barriers to knowledge exchange.”

Bartosz Mika moves the camera up, widens the focus, and follows György Lukács’s instruction to disenchant the fetishistic treatment of knowledge in mainstream “bourgeois” discourses and unmask and discover the dialectical character of knowledge in production. Adopting a sociological perspective, Mika explores the social nature of knowledge as a means of production under capitalism through four nodal points that he skillfully dialecticizes: the differentiation of individual and social knowledge, the processes of deskilling and reskilling, the formation of social “average” levels of knowledge and the function of above-average (surplus) knowledge in the creation of value, and the obsolescence and devaluation of knowledge through its dissemination and development.

The commodification of knowledge and information under contemporary capitalism is administered through regimes of intellectual property rights. Boran Ali Mercan and Altuğ Yalçıntaş, mobilizing a discourse-theoretical critique of the market, traverse the fantasy of self-corrective intellectual property markets. In a careful analysis of the “academic of desire,” they lay bare how academics, given the cutthroat conditions of the academic job market, are compelled to publish in so-called “high-caliber” journals and thereby not only reinforce the hegemonic regime of intellectual property rights but also enhance “the profit growth of copyright-intensive” knowledge industries—such as the publisher of this journal.1 Just as their analysis of intellectual property markets can easily be extended toward platform economies, their call for a counterhegemonic ethico-politics of open access and P2P appears as a reasonable point of departure to counter the conditions of the oligopolistic enclosure that characterizes the opaque operations of Big Tech.

In an essay that brings the insights of the Birmingham School of cultural studies to bear upon how streaming-media platforms have spatially and temporally transformed audience activity, Aras Özgün and Andreas Treske argue that the rise of algorithmic regulation has fragmented the public sphere once implied by broadcast TV and cinema. Procedures of microcasting, the phenomenon of binge watching, and the transformation of narratives to include increasingly hyperdiegetic features all function as dispositifs of enclosure wherein the collectiveness of audience activity as a cultural commons is privatized. Yet, as Özgün and Terske are careful to remind us, these processes of atomization and sterilization “are imposed not by the technology itself but rather by the commercial logic inherent to platform capitalism.”

Finally, Zoe Sherman’s review of Anjali Vats’s The Color of Creatorship: Intellectual Property, Race, and the Making of Americans is an invitation to remedy an important lacuna of the growing literature on many of the “new” economies discussed in this special issue: to pay attention to “the mutual constitution of race and the property categories that are an expanding share of capitalist accumulation strategies.”

We would like to note here the passing of Leo Panitch (1945–2020), Marxist intellectual and teacher. We at Rethinking Marxism got to know him not only as the coeditor of the Socialist Register (since 1985) but also as a teacher, advisor, and mentor of generations of Marxist scholars—many of whom, along with Leo Panitch, presented their work in the international conferences organized by Rethinking Marxism, and some of whom have and continue to serve on our editorial board. While he will be utterly missed, his legacy will survive not only in his immense body of work but also with those whom he has shaped and influenced.

* * *

To our great sadness, Stephen Cullenberg, Marxist economist and intellectual, university administrator, mentor, comrade, and longest-serving editorial board member, passed away on 28 February 2021, while we were in the process of preparing the journal for publication. You can read the memoriam for Steve written by the Editorial Board in the opening pages of this issue.

The Editors

 

Notes

1 For a history of the journal, see the interview with past editors Jack Amariglio and David Ruccio in K. Erçel, M. Safri, and S. Charusheela, "Re/membering Twenty Years of Rethinking Marxism," Rethinking Marxism 20, no. 4 (2008): 596–630.


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