The question of technology and our relationship to it is one that has preoccupied me for some time now. It is separate from us as a concept – technology is not, so to speak, human – and yet it is deeply intimate in so many ways, so much as to make us think that our existence is dependent on it, as is our identity; Winner’s formulation of technology as a Wittgensteinian form of life (as I wrote about in my recent thesis) appears to me to be an appropriate joining of the human being and our technology, like Kevin Kelly’s ‘technium’, a kind of skin. But just as it becomes more deeply insinuated into our lives, there is something discomfiting about it, something unnatural, something foreign. Something alien, perhaps.
Ross Douthat in today’s New York Times declares our time a crisis for liberalism, the left having ‘lost its way’, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. It’s been a popular theme. In 1969, Ted Lowi declared the end of liberalism, in favour of interest group liberalism, in part a kind of elaboration on Eisenhower’s theme of the military-industrial complex. The liberalism of which we speak has long been defined in terms of economics and economic goods, how the distribution of resources and the freedom that comes with fair access to those resources, can allow mankind to flourish. Friedman’s classic Capitalism and Freedom from 1962 defined the concept, which was ultimately routed in eighteenth century enlightenment thinking, and in particular the French Revolution. Its progression through International Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the twentieth century brought at its end an essential global consensus: Liberal Democracy was it. This was the end of history.
We mentioned in the last post a scenario where capital transcended human ownership, and became – through law – an entity in and of itself, lording it over mere humans. It sounds far-fetched, but is it? The discourse on inequality is about wealth accumulation of a small number of people, but it is essentially a discussion about the centralization of capital, where fewer and fewer people control that capital. Now, as the number of people controlling the capital decreases, the question arises: what happens if it gets down to two people, or one person, controlling the preponderance of capital? There are political answers to this, and social answers, but – for now – let’s consider the financial side.
In the West, Capital is generated primarily through the corporate-legal structures of western liberal democracy. In essence, companies produce goods and services, and accumulate assets and profits. They grow through acquisitions – other assets – and increase profitability. However, most companies are moving now towards virtualized infrastructures. What that means is that companies own less and less of their own assets, and become, essentially, capital generators, rather than capital owners. Let’s take a hypothetical example…
Piketty on Capital and Reich on Inequality are both essentially saying the same thing, that inequality is structurally bad, and growing. (We can revisit posts on social mobility and the inevitability of capitalist collapse to understand some of the ways in which this manifests itself.) In essence, Piketty – and Reich – argue that capital will continue to accrue to fewer and fewer people. There is a possible alternative, extended, dystopian view that suggests that capital – through the corporation – actually transcends human ownership entirely and become a virtualized entity in and of itself, a creature of law, that exists to perpetuate itself and grow. Therefore, in essence, capital exists to extract wealth from people, and rather than realising an objective of ‘raising all boats’, it actually pushes all boats into the water to the point of sinking, though not quite. For to sink those boats would be to undermine the source of wealth itself, and the essence of capital growth, which capital needs to survive.