What kind of regime of accumulation is taking shape today? The distinguishing features of the contemporary Atlantic economy—prolonged stagnation, globalized production, financialization, upward redistribution, the ongoing digital revolution—have provoked a range of responses. In Techno-féodalisme, Cédric Durand argued that a qualitative mutation is occurring at capitalism’s digital frontier, whereby profits are accrued by predatory means—politically enabled rents and monopolies—in a manner analogous to feudal relations of expropriation, rather than the economic compulsion to ‘accumulate via innovation’ that drives capitalist exploitation. Evgeny Morozov has responded with a wide-ranging critique of attempts on right and left to understand contemporary developments, both in the digital sector and beyond, by reference to the feudal era. ‘Capitalism’, he insists, ‘is moving in the same direction it always has been, leveraging whatever resources it can mobilize—the cheaper, the better.’ It has always depended to some extent upon extra-economic means of accumulation, so there is no need to reach for novel—or not so novel—concepts to understand its contemporary dynamics.footnote1 Are we witnessing a shift to non-capitalist forms—a new mode of production? Or is this, as Morozov would have it, just the latest round of capitalism as usual?
This contribution to these debates focuses on a key element of the contemporary landscape: the new relations of production originating in the digital sector, which the Italian economist Ugo Pagano has termed ‘intellectual monopoly capitalism’.footnote2 The giants of the digital economy, both American—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft—and Chinese—Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei—are at the forefront of these developments, though similar tendencies are discernible in other industries. Despite the knocks to their shares in late 2022 with the end of quantitative easing, the tech giants remain a dominant feature of the 21st-century scene. Indeed, it is striking that all the firms that did well in 2022—Big Oil and Big Pharma, as well as Big Tech—have one thing in common: they all exercise monopoly power over other firms. Where they differ is in what they control—what they deprive others of—which has important implications: those that systematically monopolize knowledge and data exert a global exclusion which makes them more resilient. What follows will examine the novel nature of Big Tech’s monopoly power, the factors that have given rise to it and the mechanisms used to enforce its hold over other firms. I will look in particular at the case of Microsoft, which jostles with Apple and Aramco in the top three corporations by market value. But first, some more general considerations about monopoly power may be in order.
Private property is a relationship between those who have and those who do not have—those who are deprived of access, yet still need it. As such, private property is the most general form of monopolization under capitalism. Property rights should thus be understood not simply in terms of the owner and what is owned, but as a social relationship. As David Graeber writes, they are ‘an understanding or arrangement between people concerning things’—people in the sense of individuals, but also collectives, classes, firms. In this unequal relationship, one side may constitute the vast majority of society. In this understanding, monopoly as a power relation comprises both those enjoying and those deprived of what has been monopolized. In fact, this was the conception of England’s Statute of Monopolies of 1623, which voided monopoly grants on the grounds of ‘the great Grievance and Inconvenience’ they inflicted upon the subjects of James I. These ‘grievances’ might involve restraining others from buying (known as ‘monopsony’) as well as from selling (the conventional understanding of ‘monopoly’). As James's Attorney General Edward Coke also specified, a monopoly could also govern the making, working or using of a thing.footnote3
As recent scholarship has stressed, monopoly power is not merely a market phenomenon; legal regimes play a vital role.footnote4 But it remains crucial to emphasize the effects of monopolization as a power relation exerted over others. This was central for the 1960s theorists of ‘monopoly capital’, described as a new stage in capitalist development that was characterized by giant corporations such as General Electric with sufficient market power to set prices. Capitalism, in Paul Sweezy’s definition, comes into being through ‘the formation of a propertyless working-class on the one hand and of a property-owning capitalist class on the other’.footnote5 These are the two sides of a relationship based on capitalists’ monopoly over the means of production, used to exploit workers and appropriate the value they create.
Means of production are heterogeneous, therefore other relations of monopoly power can overlay the monopoly of capital over labour. The specific conditions of certain industries, such as a minimum plant size and, more generally, economies of scale, can create natural monopolies. Monopolization can occur over a resource, as in the case of companies monopolizing fossil fuel—like Aramco and Exxon Mobil—at the expense of those that depend on it. Modern states can also create forms of monopoly relations, such as those based on intellectual property rights (iprs). The specificity of this last kind of monopoly—over intellectual property—is two-fold. Knowledge can in principle be utilized simultaneously without detriment to any party—indeed, with multiplying benefits to all, as with universal literacy—and need not be delimited by physical location. Its private ownership can therefore involve a global monopoly over its application. Once this takes place, firms’ capacities to absorb and learn from new knowledge will be structurally differentiated, leaving those at the frontier with the best chance of future innovation. Secondly, as knowledge is part of every production process, it can potentially be monopolized in any sector or industry across the economy.
This conception of monopoly power is fundamental to grasping the workings of intellectual monopoly capitalism today. First though, what are the institutional, legal, political and technological transformations that have led to its development? All else being equal, firms that innovate are in a better position to do so in the future, meaning that creative success can unleash a cycle whereby a successful firm monopolizes knowledge at the expense of the rest of the economy. This self-reinforcing dynamic was progressively strengthened in the United States and the United Kingdom from the mid-19th century, as barriers were constructed around knowledge and information. It began with the disembodiment of workplace knowledge from worker to organization; trade secrets gradually became a corporate right; employment relationships matured into contract-based legal agreements that included a trade secret clause. By the start of the 20th century, the rise of the corporation as a legal entity gave it the right to own knowledge created by its employees during working hours.footnote6
The key developments date from the 1980s, when a wave of legal and institutional changes created a more stringent and extensive iprs regime in the us. Legal protection was extended to include software, which had stopped being integrated into hardware after ibm, a decade earlier, ‘unbundled’ it to pre-empt a Department of Justice antitrust suit and thereby limit damage claims from competitors.footnote7 This system was then internationalized from the mid-1990s with the signing of trips (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights)—originally drafted by ibm, Pfizer and Microsoft—and follow-up treaties.footnote8 Aspects of knowledge used for production became independent appropriable entities, granting intellectual monopolies to those owning, possessing or controlling them. iprs now became widely used and abused in the pharmaceutical and technology sectors—as in the phenomena of patent thickets, where innovation is split into countless patents so as to make imitation more complex, as Apple did with the iPhone.footnote9 Today’s intellectual monopolies are sufficiently powerful to infringe the iprs of subordinate organizations, such as Apple’s violation of Qualcomm patents.