What did Covid reveal about capitalism?
I don't think Covid revealed anything we did not already know about capitalism – a system that makes certain priorities, and those priorities are based mostly on ideals of profitability and cutting costs. In the case of Covid, we saw it manifested in debates about what counts as essential work and what doesn't. The allocation and distribution of value in capitalism came to the fore. The rich got richer, yes, and I can feel moral outrage about that – I just don't see it as intellectually very enlightening.
And the triumph of platform capitalism – the way that digital companies triumphed in this crisis?
Again, I think Covid is in this regard a red herring – it is neither a catalyst or a great revelator. But if you were to reframe the question and ask me whether there are certain problems in capitalism and whether there are certain ways in which technology can give you an answer – I would of course say yes: There are huge structural problems in capitalism.
Can you explain the main problems that you see?
Most of the larger misunderstandings and problems with capitalism have to do with the way in which it actually blocks and creates obstacles in our path of what I would call discovery. Capitalism actually makes it harder for us to discover what the world is really like – you can see it clearly when it comes to climate. But you can also see it playing out in preventing us from forming institutions through which we can solve problems together – not institutions of the market that are going to accelerate the problems they created.
Has this always been an element of capitalism?
Marx saw a liberating element in capitalism because it destroys traditional religion – but at the same time capitalism truncates and limits this liberation. Hayek was right to say that capitalism facilitates discovery. The whole point of a market economy is to facilitate discovery of new things through competition – but you only discover things that essentially make it easier for you to sell goods at a profit or consume goods somewhat cheaper. Any other form of knowledge or the capacity to form institutions is just not recognized. It is not necessarily suppressed – but it is also not valued.
The reality is that the left doesn't know how to position itself towards capitalism.
You believe – like Marx – in the emancipatory power of technology?
What technology offers is the ability to reveal things for what they are – and also a way to experiment with discovering new things, new forms of being together, new ways of action. This of course would require a very different vision of technology, outside of the purely instrumental, and disclosing what the world is really like.
Do you have an example of what you mean?
Think of a city's transportation system – which might look extremely efficient to you, built with certain optimization criteria in mind, by designers and architects. And their narrative is that the system is efficient. But the counter narrative will show you all the struggles of disabled people in navigating this public infrastructure – and you will see that it is actually highly inefficient. The reason why you can see that is because you have an extra layer of data that wasn't there before. The notion of efficiency as not universally good and true. Efficient for some is highly inefficient for others.
Technology is in that sense a force of enlightenment.
What we need to debate is the role of politics in all of this. I reject the dichotomy between technology and politics. What passes under the label of technology in any given historical era is the result of power struggles and hegemony. I am interested in questions like: How can we seriously engage with the question of technology? How does technology relate to the question of modernity? What is a capitalist modernity? What would be a non-capitalist modernity? And how does this relate to questions of autonomy and emancipation and technology?
But who is addressing these questions in the political arena?
Certainly not the people on the left. The reality is that the left doesn't know how to position itself towards capitalism, it does not seem to want to build an alternative system to capitalism. But then you end up in this bizarre situation where even some of the socialist leaning candidates in both the UK and the US suggest that the best solution would be to rebuild Sweden of the 1970s. The problem is: Even if you managed to get rid of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk through more progressive taxation – all the questions related to the environmental crisis or the North-South relations wouldn't disappear.
A return to the 1970s would mean a return of the state?
One consequence of Covid is definitely that we are going to see governments embark on a lot of structural transformations. They are sitting on a lot of money that comes their way – but in many cases they don't have a strong bureaucracy to push ahead the transformation. They turn to ask for help, and normally they turn to big consulting firms, big law firms, big tech firms – guidance from the outside within the weakened system state agency. This is the result of a very strategic transformation of bureaucracy in accordance with some action plan and template. The state gets taken over by consulting firms because it is in the nature of the neoliberal state to build this private public partnership. And Covid is accelerating the process towards consultancy capitalism.
One last question. Can you complete the sentence for me? This is personal because –
I have spent almost a decade trying to understand the exact role of socialism as an ideology.
Evgeny Morozov is a tech writer and publisher of “The Syllabus”