Nick Srnicek: A Review of Platform Capitalism

Nick Srnicek in Platform Capitalism emphasizes capitalism’s dyanamism, its need for innovation and “constant technological change,” along with this he provides a history in “deskilling technologies,” or what many term the dumbing down effect of standardization and conformity within all technics (i.e., the replicability and interchangeability of skilled for unskilled labour or machines).  Modern Corporations and businesses in their bid to “cut costs, beat out competitors, control workers, reduce turnover time, and gain market share, capitalists are incentivised to continually transform the labour process. This was the source of capitalism’s immense dynamism, as capitalists tend to increase labour productivity constantly and to outdo one another in generating profits efficiently.”1

The key here is the concept of efficiency or the Taylorism efffect, which of course in a Weberian form is the outgrowth of the whole Christian world of perfectionism. Something I’ve emphasized before in many blog posts. The terms “perfect” and “perfection” are drawn from the Greek teleios and teleiōsis, respectively. The root word, telos, means an “end” or “goal”. In contemporary translations, teleios and teleiōsis are often rendered as “mature” and “maturity”, respectively, so as not to imply infallibility or the absence of defects. Rather, in the Christian tradition, teleiōsis has referred to progressing towards spiritual wholeness or health. In the secular form that would enter into the concept of efficiency this movement from defect to wholeness or completion, would end in capital accumulation: profits, surplus, excess, etc. would take priority in engineering machines, assembly lines, and the mereology of the machinic or the techno-commercial sphere that in our moment is leading to total efficiency in digital economy and the autonomy of the machinic in robotics and AGI. The elimination of inefficiencies has led to the final struggle of eliminating the human from the equation. Capitalism perfected is a process in which humans are eliminated or expulsed as inefficient, and replaced by machines. In our time even the intelligent human is being set adrift by smart machines that will become more and more intelligent as computational and algorithmic systems come on line over the next century.

Capitalism from the beginning has been driven by monopoly, efficiency, and the elimination of time, motion, and expenditure (Bataille). Seeking only the accumulation of the surplus or excess that is born of this mixture of desire and its destitution. In our time the human element is being eliminated altogether through total automation. This is nothing new. From its beginnings labor was displaced by machines at ever new innovation turn. The whole history of the assembly line is the beginning of the information age with its incorporation of set theory (differential statistics, probability, and calculus in thermodynamics and computation), etc. All seekiing to eliminate the time barrier as in Johnathan Crary’s 24/7 where the worker is at work ‘at work or play’. With ultimately the machinc world of AGI and Robotics replacing humans at every turn to the point that humans will in the future become unecessary to the work cycle. But of course that begs the question. It the owners/managers eliminate the paid worker, who will buy the goods (commodities)? The machines? Eliminate the paid worker you will no longer gain profits and capitalism will have due to its own innovations and techno-commercial success have eliminated the very need for profits and accumulation. No one will be left except the rich. But then again isn’t that the point? Is that not what oligarchy, plutocracy, and the whole gambit of monopolizing about? The cannibalization of capital by a small insurgent force of profiteers?

From the Robber barons of the late Nineteenth Century to the great Multinational Conglomerates of the mid-Twentieth to the  California entreprenurs of the late and early Twentieth and 21st Century we’ve seen this slow monopolization of power into fewer and fewer corporations owned by certain centralized banking, insurance, and conglomerates of a global cast. This tendency toward monopoly brings with it a closure or branding on innovation, and the expansion and enforcement of a tightly controlled regime of security and surveillance capitalism. So that what began with innovation and technological change ends in a return to the massive virtual panopticon of a paranoid world of Corporations vying for less and less natural resources at the total degradation of both the environment and its life forms. All in the name of efficiency.

On Platform Capitalism

After reading Nick Srnicek’s new book Platform Capitalism I have to admit that the verve and energy of his earlier polemics in works with Alex Williams is almost staid in comparison. This short work is neither polemic nor full blown critique, but rather a historical survey of the digital economy and emerging technologies that support and supplement it, along with a history of this transitional process and technics emerging out of Fordist and post-Fordist Neoliberalism. And yet, not once does he use the term neoliberalism which has become something of a shibboleth and hackneyed icon for most leftist discourse in recent years. In fact, Srnicek’s work is refreshing in that it takes an almost bland but methodical approach to the actual economic base and infrastructures that are being put in place within contemporary capitalism.

I can’t say I was disappointed in his treatment, only that it was almost a gloss, a work one might find in a classroom on the Digital Economics 101 variety. A general report rather than a detailed examination of the inner workings of the digital economy. And yet, in the short space of the book he does cover the pertinent economic trends and their background sufficiently to give the reader a basic tool-box of mental notes for further research. His extension of Benjamin Bratton’s notions of the Platform into capital economics is one of the basic tenets, and although Srnicek’s approach is more specific than Bratton’s and others he seems to satisfied to supplement rather than define this already emerging conceptuality:

“The present book aims to supplement these other perspectives by giving an economic history of capitalism and digital technology, while recognizing the diversity of economic forms and the competitive tensions inherent in the contemporary economy. The simple wager of the book is that we can learn a lot about major tech companies by taking them to be economic actors within a capitalist mode of production.”1

As he’ll remind us one aspect of to his argument is to understand “our position in a broader context is the first step to creating strategies for transforming it”. In fact one of his key points is that our understanding of how “we conceptualize the past and the future is important for how we think strategically and develop political tactics to transform society today. In short, it makes a difference whether we see emerging technologies as inaugurating a new regime of accumulation or as continuing earlier regimes.” This sense of the continuity or discontinuity of contemporary digital capitalism as compared to earlier forms sets the stage for much of the books thrust. In fact he spends a great deal of time on many of the current tech companies and their incorporation of this concept capitalism that goes under the rubric of Platform.

In a lead up to his chapter on Platform Capitalism proper he gives us a short survey of the economic trends that allowed it to emerge, saying,

Plagued by global concerns over public debt, governments have turned to monetary policy in order to ease economic conditions. This, combined with increases in corporate savings and with the expansion of tax havens, has let loose a vast glut of cash, which has been seeking out decent rates of investment in a low-interest rate world. Finally, workers have suffered immensely in the wake of the crisis and have been highly vulnerable to exploitative working conditions as a result of their need to earn an income. All this sets the scene for today’s economy. (Srnicek, KL 476)

The combined debt regimes along with the surplus accumulation of financial capitalism, which has allowed a new serfdom of nations and the free-floating virtual worlds of the digital markets,  exposing the underpinnings of an accelerating economy of flows and deregulated speculations brought the old neoliberal framework to its knees during the 2007-2008 crisis. In the aftermath with the bailouts of the major corporations and financial institutions that brought the crisis about we’ve seen both the instigation of a the debt economy into an end game.

As Maurizio Lazzarato in Governing by Debt describes it under capitalism, debt is not primarily a question of budget and economic concerns but a political relation of subjection and enslavement. Debt has become infinite and unpayable. It disciplines populations, calls for structural reforms, justifies authoritarian crackdowns, and even legitimizes the suspension of democracy in favor of “technocratic governments” beholden to the interests of capital. The 2008 economic crisis only accelerated the establishment of a “new State capitalism,” which has carried out a massive confiscation of societies’ wealth through taxes. And who benefits? Finance capital. In a calamitous return to the situation before the two world wars, the entire process of accumulation is now governed by finance, which has absorbed sectors it once ignored, like higher education, and today is often identified with life itself. Faced with the current catastrophe and the disaster to come, Lazzarato contends, we must overcome capitalist valorization and reappropriate our existence, knowledge, and technology.

Srnicek’s work does not go into a diagnosis or critique in the sense of Lazzarato’s project, but rather spends time detailing the actual workings of the digital economies that have emerged in the wake of such austerity. Naomi Klien in her earlier work The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism would inform us that the “ultimate goal for the corporations at the center of the complex (financial or debt economy) is to bring the model of for-profit government, which advances so rapidly in extraordinary circumstances, into the ordinary and day-to-day functioning of the state— in effect, to privatize the government”.2

With the rise of automation in robotics, AI, and techno-commercial digital economies we’ve seen the slow erosion between capitalism and democracy in many of the major nations. This divorce between modern democracies and its economics, the gap between the old notion of a political economy and economics without politics has become a part of this new digital world of free-floating capital. As  Jean-Pierre Dupuy in his recent Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith will argue the economy “cannot be explained without reference to religion, but that Economy occupies the place emptied out by the desacralization the world, itself an eminently religious phenomenon. The recent economic crisis must therefore be placed in the long perspective of modernity, beginning in the seventeenth century.”3

Srnicek does not delve into either the deeper moral or religious underpinnings of our economic times, but rather stays with the surface phenomenon, infrastructure, and the economic and monetary figures supporting this new transitional reconstruction of capitalism in our time. In his chapter on Platform capitalism he implies the obvious without going into extravagant details telling us: “Capitalism, when a crisis hits, tends to be restructured. New technologies, new organisational forms, new modes of exploitation, new types of jobs, and new markets all emerge to create a new way of accumulating capital.” (KL 536) The point is in this book the obvious truth of violence to the poor, the excluded, the massive unemployed worker base goes unsaid, and is rather accepted as the course of this continued system of production.

But what of the Platform in Platform capitalism? What is this beast? The basic motif of Platform capitalism is the concept itself:

At the most general level, platforms are digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact.  They therefore position themselves as intermediaries that bring together different users: customers, advertisers, service providers, producers, suppliers, and even physical objects.  More often than not, these platforms also come with a series of tools that enable their users to build their own products, services, and marketplaces. (KL 608)

Ultimately Platforms are a new type of firm; they are “characterized by providing the infrastructure to intermediate between different user groups, by displaying monopoly tendencies driven by network effects, by employing cross-subsidization to draw in different user groups, and by having a designed core architecture that governs the interaction possibilities.” (KL 653) Quite a compressed syntax in this statement. The notion of intermediation between otherwise diverse and disparate “user groups”. Even he use of the term “user groups” is a digital artifact. Ideally, the members of a user group live in the same geographic area, so they can get together in person. However, some user groups have members distributed throughout the world, and they meet using Internet chat rooms, message boards, or mailing lists. Members may also correspond by telephone and e-mail on a one-to-one basis. User groups often have Web sites that each member can visit on a regular basis to stay informed.

Yet, in the new digital economy the virtual and actual interoperate. We’ve seen new emerging games markets like the recent Pokémon GO. This game is an interactive, mobile game that uses your phone’s GPS data and clock to show Pokémon hidden near your current, physical location. The Pokémon which appear on-screen in the app  can be captured. As you go to different locations and explore different cities and towns, the types of Pokémon you encounter will change. The notion here is the emergence of the virtual into the actual phenomenal world, the breakdown of the barriers between virtual/actual. The development of a world turned inside-out or outside-in depending on which way you observe the digital ball roll.  In such a world emerging in our time we are moving inside out or outside in into an all pervasive infosphere. With the demise recently of the concept of Nature in many critical vocabularies we’ve seen the boundaries between culture vs. nature divide challenged allowing in our moment an interface culture based on algorithmic conformity to replace the older human to human interactions. One is for the most part mediated by digital tools and has oneself become a digital commodity or brand. We have moved inside the infosphere, the all-pervading nature of which also depends on the extent to which we accept its interface as integral to our reality and transparent to us (in the sense of no longer perceived as present). What matters is not so much moving bits instead of atoms— this is an outdated, communication-based interpretation of the information society that owes too much to mass-media sociology— as the far more radical fact that our understanding and conceptualization of the very essence and fabric of reality is changing. Indeed, we have begun to accept the virtual as reality. So the information society is better seen as a neo-manufacturing society in which raw materials and energy have been superseded by data and information, the new digital gold and the real source of added value. Not just communication and transactions then, but the creation, design, and management of information are the keys to the proper understanding of our hyperhistorical predicament.4

What is key for Srnicek in this new economy is that with the rise of the Platform the “important element is that the capitalist class owns the platform, not necessarily that it produces a physical product” (KL 664). How this came about is another matter. Rather than the postmodern capitalism described by Lyotard, Deleuze/Guattari, and so many others under the psychological notion of the libido economy, Srnicek stays with this crossover term of Platform and infrastructural mediation. Describing the various types of Platforms he tells us:

The first type is that of advertising platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook), which extract information on users, undertake a labour of analysis, and then use the products of that process to sell ad space. The second type is that of cloud platforms (e.g. AWS, Salesforce), which own the hardware and software of digital-dependent businesses and are renting them out as needed. The third type is that of industrial platforms (e.g. GE, Siemens), which build the hardware and software necessary to transform traditional manufacturing into internet-connected processes that lower the costs of production and transform goods into services. The fourth type is that of product platforms (e.g. Rolls Royce, Spotify), which generate revenue by using other platforms to transform a traditional good into a service and by collecting rent or subscription fees on them. Finally, the fifth type is that of lean platforms (e.g. Uber, Airbnb), which attempt to reduce their ownership of assets to a minimum and to profit by reducing costs as much as possible. (KL 665-673)

The rest of the book fills out the details, challenges, and future prospects of these emerging platform technologies and economic players. All in all the book was fair minded but lacking in an in depth critique and diagnosis. Yet, it set out to give a survey not a critique, a historical rendition rather than a diagnosticians report on the disease. Ultimately it harbors no surprises, but provides an informed look at the history of our contemporary economics and its digital players. For me at least the only thing lacking is that deeper vision that would have occupied another book length section on the diagnosis and cure of the disease. But that’s my own need not the one Srnicek delivers so we’ll hope that in the future he will provide a more in depth critical gaze onto this violent beast emerging in our time.


  1. Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism (Theory Redux) Wiley. Kindle Edition. 2017
  2. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (p. 15). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
  3. Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture) (Kindle Locations 487-489). Michigan State University Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 17). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

 

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