Evgeny Morozov has provided a salutary critique of recent proposals to conceptualize the social relations of the digital economy—with web users supposedly tied like serfs to tech barons’ inescapable domains—by analogy with those of the feudal era. His ‘Critique of Techno-Feudal Reason’ offers a systematic review of contemporary feudal-speak as a discursive swamp in which, he charges, ‘the left has a hard time differentiating itself from the right’—neoliberals like Glen Weyl and Eric Posner, as well as neo-reactionaries like Curtis Yarvin and anti-wokite Joel Kotkin, articulating the same ‘neo-’ or ‘techno-feudal’ critique as Yanis Varoufakis, Mariana Mazzucato, Robert Kuttner or Jodi Dean. If radical thinkers have embraced feudal imagery as a rhetorical, meme-friendly ploy, Morozov argues that this is testament not to media savviness but to intellectual weakness—‘as if the left’s theoretical framework can no longer make sense of capitalism without mobilizing the moral language of corruption and perversion.’ By shifting its attention from actual capitalist relations to reminiscences of feudalism, it risks letting go its prey to chase a shadow, abandoning its most original and effective angle of attack on exploitative socio-economic relations—its sophisticated anti-capitalist political-theoretical apparatus.footnote1
In defining his terms—what makes ‘capitalism’ capitalism and ‘feudalism’ feudalism—Morozov reaches back to 1970s debates, in particular Robert Brenner’s critique of Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Origins of the Modern World System (1974).footnote2 In Morozov’s view, Brenner’s distinction between the two modes of production—resting on the economic compulsions that force capitalists to accumulate via innovation, and propertyless workers to seek waged labour, as distinct from lordly appropriation via the knout of feudal coercion—although ‘elegant and consistent’, should nevertheless be abandoned in favour of Wallerstein’s ‘analytically messier’ but intuitively convincing notion of a capitalist world-system built on the coercive transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core. If capitalism has always depended on a degree of extra-economic appropriation, there is no need to describe the digital giants’ enforcement of their monopolies, or the state-driven upward redistribution of wealth, as anything other than capitalist. Besides, Morozov argues, Big Tech is in fact productive—why else would Alphabet and Amazon invest tens of billions in r&d, if not to ‘accumulate via innovation’?footnote3
To his credit, Morozov moves beyond the discussion of conceptual ambiguities in new uses of ‘feudalism’ to challenge the core of the techno-feudal hypothesis—the idea that ‘something in the nature of information and data networks pushes the digital economy in the direction of the feudal logic of rent and dispossession, rather than the capitalist logic of profit and exploitation.’ Regretting a ‘lack of analytical clarity’, he argues there is no need for invocation of feudalism: ‘Capitalism is moving in the same direction it always has been, leveraging whatever resources it can mobilize—the cheaper, the better’. It is not a given, he claims, that today’s upward-redistributive tendencies will win out over the productive ones. But that is no reason to believe that techno-capitalism is ‘a nicer, cosier and more progressive regime’ than techno-feudalism. On the contrary, Morozov concludes: ‘by vainly invoking the latter, we risk whitewashing the former’s reputation.’footnote4
These are telling points. If Morozov is right that the digital economy’s productive tendencies may win out over its upward-redistributive ones, then the critique of its predatory dynamics that I developed in Technoféodalisme would be no more effective than Don Quixote’s assault on the windmill.footnote5 Worse, by picking the wrong fight, such a critique would no longer be qualified to denounce capitalism—as it normally functions—in the digital age. This would be a worrying eventuality, indeed. Before moving on to the core of the discussion, a preliminary logical point should be made on this score. An attempt to engage critically with what is perceived as a transformation in the mode of production does not necessarily invalidate the older critique on which it is building and which it hopes to supersede. The critique of the digital sector mounted under the adscription of ‘techno-feudalism’ is fully compatible with analyses of globalization and financialization as simultaneously operative dynamics. One should not be intimidated about thinking these novel developments afresh; there is no reason why exploring the specific dynamics of the digital economy should result in whitewashing capitalism or enthusing about the productive virtues of competition.
Importantly, this is true whether or not the techno-feudal hypothesis is proved correct. If it is wrong, or if the predatory dynamic of the digital sector is only nascent or not yet actualized, then the existing modern Marxist anti-capitalist critique retains its validity as a challenge to the current state of the world. If, on the other hand, a qualitative mutation of capitalism is taking place, one that modifies the laws of motion of the socio-economic system with features reminiscent of feudalism, this new conceptual apparatus will allow us to grasp and fight the emerging forms of social domination. Neither scenario requires any nostalgic praise for the ‘good-old capitalism’ of the past. As in Pascal’s wager, ‘If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.’
Unlike the existence of God, however, the characteristics of a mode of production can be theoretically and empirically investigated by rational means. As Morozov rightly stresses, any inquiry located at the frontiers of capitalism, past or future, must begin by tackling a definitional problem. I propose to move beyond a simple dichotomy between a narrow, Brennerian definition of capitalism, where property relations set in motion relations of production, and a predominantly commercial, Braudelian view of it as an ‘infinitely adaptable’ system of exchange oriented toward accumulation. While the elasticity of the latter allows it greater flexibility in accounting for the historical-geographical variations of capitalism and the diversity of its means of wealth accumulation—in particular, the persistence of primitive-accumulation processes—the former better grasps the unique productive drive of this mode of production.
This polarity is helpful to clarify what ‘re-feudalization’ is not. The symptoms that I have been calling ‘techno-feudal’—acknowledging of course that the isomorphism with medieval Europe and Japan is distant and incomplete—imply a productive impasse at the world-system level, such that returns on capital can no longer be obtained through the production of basic mass commodities, but require political intervention—guaranteeing monopolies, underwriting speculative financialization and so forth. This system-wide impasse is altogether different from cases where finance has withdrawn from domestic production to invest in more dynamic capitalist centres elsewhere, as was the case with the Dutch Republic in the early years of capitalism, for example—or, indeed, imperial Britain. The Dutch Republic enjoyed a Golden Age of prosperity in the seventeenth century, but its advanced economic structure did not become the launch-pad for an early industrial revolution; nor, however, was there any ‘re-feudalization’, or restoration of relations of lordly appropriation on the land.footnote6 An explanation must account both for its early-modern capitalist expansion and for its later blockage at national level. On the first point, it seems clear that a priori transformation at the point of production was a crucial factor in the mercantile flourishing of the Low Countries.footnote7 Later, however, the predominance of finance—along with the persistence of protectionist barriers at local level—became a serious hindrance to national capitalist development. Instead, it perpetuated a monied aristocracy, well-integrated into international circuits, which contributed to—and benefited from—England’s industrial-capitalist transition.