Newsletter #36: Which Post-Capitalist Transition? with Evgeny Morozov

By Mack Penner

The debate over techno-feudalism, and whether it is an arrived successor to capitalism, is mainly internal to Marxist theory and closely related fields. In Evgeny Morozov’s interview with The Dig, we hear about intellectuals like Robert Brenner, associated with “political Marxism,” the Marxist geographer David Harvey, Marxist-feminist Nancy Fraser, Italian workerist Mario Tronti, as well as later autonomists ( operaistas) like Antonio Negri. The renowned world systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein and the scholar of “surveillance capitalism,” Shoshana Zuboff, both come up as well. Still, this is only a partial list. The question of techno-feudalism, which gets nuanced answers to be sure, has legs among Marxists.

The techno-feudal proposition, in short, is that capitalism could come to a dystopian end. In a development that offends any sense of natural historical progress, we may be returning to something that looks like feudalism.

The amount of wealth and power concentrated in Silicon Valley, especially, suggests a return to ancient political-economic logics in which an exclusive regime of intellectual property rights and upward re-distribution of wealth by political means confer something like feudal power upon select firms and individuals.

Morozov, in his interview and in his essay at the New Left Review, offers a convincing critique of these arguments. But to the extent that techno-feudalism is an idea that can be “filled out” with real evidence from the present political economy, it can be summarized as: seems bad!

The debate over a regressive transition to techno-feudalism is unfolding alongside another “transition debate” that is at least sometimes more optimistic. Especially since 2020 and the associated fiscal policies to manage the pandemic, it has become commonplace to argue that neoliberalism, a dominant global political economy for something like four decades, has hit a terminal point. The failure of the early Biden agenda has tempered pronouncements somewhat. Still, from Financial Times columnists to liberal historians, there are those who think the neoliberal order is all but finished, even if its successor order might still be in the process of arrival. Some leftist participants in this debate seem more inclined to the view that neoliberalism is far from finished.

In the broadest terms, the two debates assume different engines of political-economic change. Techno-feudalism, more deterministic, would represent the outcome of a regressive historical logic: the increasing concentration of wealth and power, especially under conditions of neoliberalism, undermines the dynamic and competitive tendencies of capitalism and reinstates feudalism. Those who would pronounce neoliberalism dead, on the other hand, see an order rocked by crisis and compelled to deform and change, in a mainly ad hoc fashion, as a result.

Where does this leave us? The title of the episode is useful. Whatever we’ve got, it’s “still capitalism.” The point can be made in Marxist terms. Surely we can agree that socialism is, and will be, the historical form of class struggle against capitalism. We cannot make history just as we please, but must do so under the historical conditions we inherit. Socialism without capitalism doesn’t make much sense.

Further Reading and Listening Morozov’s interview fits perfectly into the recent string of Dig episodes that touch on historical and theoretical aspects of capitalism and world systems more generally. The two episodes with Ho-fung Hung (titled “China Boom” and “Clash of Empires”), plus interviews with Ayşe Zarakol and Margarita Fajardo, are worth going back to, either for a first listen or a re-listen.

Relatedly, I have recently made some pretty dense reading suggestions, including the Brenner Debate, Wallerstein, and Fernand Braudel. How about something more manageable? It’s not exactly a breeze, but this article by Herman Mark Schwartz for Phenomenal World offers seriously rich analysis of the dynamics that animate much of the techno-feudalism debate.