The 2021 edition of the Socialist Register is entitled “Beyond Digital Capitalism — New Ways of Living”. It’s about how an increasingly digitalised capitalism works and alternatives across a wide range of human activities.
Whydigital capitalism? Firstly, because of the increasingly central role of the tech sector in the economy, seen through both a growing economic dominance of monopolies based on digital platforms and the increased use of digitised forms of production, distribution and exchange. The top four largest tech companies — Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook — now account for 20% of the combined value of the top 500 US corporations. These firms, together with Google now valued at $5 trillion, “influence the global Internet technological infrastructure, accumulation logics, laws, policies, and regulations”.
A number of contributions in SR 2021 deal with digital platforms: their connection to finance and the state; their potentials and limitations as a basis for socialist media; and what a truly democratic communication system would look like and how it might be implemented using decentralised platform technology.
A major virtue of SR 2021 is that it avoids both the uncritical acceptance of digital technologies as enabling a postcapitalist society and a generalised rejection of such technologies as inevitably stamped by their capitalist origins. Rather one theme is to interrogate such technologies to see how and whether they are compatible with “a needs-based society” and, if not, how they might be adapted or transformed to make them so. Some contributions look at the possibilities opened up and routes cut off by the way digital capitalism has developed.
A similar approach is taken to the consequences of the Covid pandemic. Ursula Huws’ contribution “Reaping the Whirlwind” deals with its impact on digitalisation, restructuring and the mobilisation of labour. Previously existing trends such as the concentration and centralisation of capital, the use of surveillance techniques and a polarisation between “fixed” and “footloose” work and workers have been accelerated by the pandemic.
On the positive side, the crisis has finished the claim that there is no alternative to austerity, has emphasised the value and indispensability of a range of low paid and neglected workers and seen a range of mobilisation, both around work and in the community. Who reaps the whirlwind will depend on class struggle.
The collection is not taken in by the allure of the new, but also looks backwards. Joan Sangster, looking at the surveillance of female service workers, points out that flight attendants and retail workers were both subject to surveillance of their appearance and behaviour at work a long time before digital technologies were used. Bryan Palmer examines how time has remained a central issue of labour struggles though its form has shifted. Matthew Cole, Hugo Radice and Charles Umney trace what they call “the political economy of datafication and work”, looking at what work today has in common with past labour regimes such as Taylorism.
Larry Lohmann’s article on artificial intelligence similarly looks for “the old in the new”, looking at the parallel with 19th-century machines in fragmenting human actions and undertaking them in ways different from humans. He emphasises however that the basic contradictions of capitalism remain, particularly in its drive to replace human labour, pointing to its persistence even alongside AI and leaving as an open question how the contradictions will play out as AI becomes ever more pervasive.
We don’t need to be told that digital capitalism increasingly makes our “ways of living” unthinkable without the use of digital platforms and the devices that enable us to interact with them and each other. The pandemic has revealed some of these requirements and the inequalities that result through such things as unequal abilities to work at home easily and to undertake remote education.
SR 2021 envisages alternatives to the current way of doing things across a wide range of aspects of everyday life. Proposals for communal restaurants as a way of overcoming the commodification of food, food inequality and an unhealthy diet. A range of socialist principles for the care of the elderly that move away from uniformity as there is “no perfect model”, requiring equitable conditions throughout life and supportive communities. With, clothing “the progressive elimination of fashion”, building an alliance of consumers, workers and activists to bring radical change to garment production.
On transport, Sean Sweeney and John Treat focus on road transport and argue that the increasing emphasis on electric vehicles does not resolve the problems of carbon emissions. Their impact on the demand for electricity will be met in part by non-renewable energy. There is still a need to focus on substituting public for private transport and “minimising unnecessary or unwanted mobility”. The key issue is whether transport should be private or socialised.
They advocate that local authorities take over private companies like Uber, but more immediately perhaps use strenuous regulation or perhaps outright bans on their activities. They emphasise the need to start now given the environmental crisis and say “socialists have the conceptual tools to develop a ‘transitional program’ for transport, but the link between the present and the possible must be both strong and flexible.”
The article by Pritha and Pratyush Chandra on “Health Care, Technology and Socialised Medicine” raises fundamental issues about all healthcare systems (including socialised ones such as the NHS) being constrained in their ability to respond to human needs as a result of having to function within the framework and respond to the demands of capitalism. Drawing on the 1930s writings of Communist Party member and doctor Norman Bethune, they talk of the “mutual embeddedness of pathology and economics” and see “diseases [as] part of the necessary conditions of capital’s existence”. “Bethune’s concept of socialised medicine could never be exhausted in the instrumentality of policy measures and temporal demands”. Accordingly, there is little here in terms of an immediate perspective.
The contrast between these two pieces points to some fundamental questions. Are the alternative visions of a socialist future dependent on the prior overthrow of capitalism? Are they compatible with a programme of radical reform? Or do they form part of Sweeney and Treat’s transitional strategy?
This problem is evident in Christoph Hermann’s piece “Life after the pandemic: from production for profit to provision for need”, which points to the pandemic as having shown a sharp divide between people’s needs and the drive for profit.
Hermann speaks of the need for a use-value society “more modest and pragmatic” than socialism itself. “While socialism demands nothing short of a revolution, the transition towards the use value society can stop with small steps — and it can begin right away”. Hermann sees these steps in co-operatives, not-for-profit organisations and small firms.
Ironically this is next to Greg Albo’s polemical piece “Postcapitalism: Alternatives or Detours?”, in which he takes on three positions that see postcapitalism emerging from trends supposedly expanding within current society. They are: Eric Olin Wright’s “real Utopias”; the idea of commoning and an expansion of the Commons; the idea put forward by Paul Mason and others that socialists should embrace recent technological developments as they will create the basis for a postcapitalist society. Albo explains how each of these necessarily ends up with something like the mixed economy beloved of traditional social democracy “[relying] more on capital itself rather than class struggle … to get beyond capitalism”.
There are other basic questions. New ways of living require “new people” who are prepared to change their behaviour, as by giving up fashion or their cars. Without this shift in consciousness the alternatives remain out of reach. It will not be obtained by propaganda alone but requires practical demonstration of the need to take these steps, not just “prefigurative” alternatives. What precedents are there for doing this? The response to the pandemic may provide clues.
Another issue, raised particularly by the piece on clothing, is whether and how far we should roll back the structures and processes existing in globalised capitalism. Pointing to the ridiculous supply chain of an H&M garment, it calls for producing fabrics and clothes as close as possible to where they will be consumed and for protection for local firms to avoid international subcontracting.
This downscaling is seen as continuing in a “needs-based economy”. It raises immediately the question of whether this would then make sense in terms of productivity and the ability of a world economy to meet those needs. How would a socialist federation manage the international division of labour?
As a collection of views on diverse topics, SR 2021 cannot provide answers to these fundamental questions. That it raises them, as well as providing analysis of the present and the past and potential solutions for the future, makes it a valuable resource in further discussion.