Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, claims capitalism is putting itself out of a job thanks to the technologies it has produced. He argues that because companies like Google and Facebook are powered by social production, the private means of production are becoming obsolete. He says that Artificial Intelligence will be capitalism’s downfall.  If wishing made it so…

Former Greek finance minister and renegade economist, Yanis Varoufakis recently claimed that capitalism is coming to an end because the technology it has allowed to flourish will eventually be its downfall.

The Australian economics professor told an audience at the University College London that artificial intelligence and technology companies are causing the economic system to undermine itself. He argues that because technology services like Google and Facebook are powered by social production, the private means of production are becoming obsolete.

“Firstly the technologies were funded by some government grant; secondly every time you search for something on Google, you contribute to Google’s capital,” he said.

“And who gets the returns from capital? Google, not you. So now there is no doubt capital is being socially produced, and the returns are being privatised. This, with artificial intelligence is going to be the end of capitalism.”

He warned that Karl Marx “will have his revenge”.

“Capitalism is going to undermine capitalism, because they are producing all these technologies that will make corporations and the private means of production obsolete,” he said. “And then what happens? I have no idea.”

Varoufakis is one of few economists with a tight grasp on just how perfectly the economic system conspires against those who work within it, (Adults in the Room should be compulsory reading for every man, woman and child), but I personally believe his optimism over the democratising potential of technology is misplaced.

As our previous reporting has demonstrated: Technology has already failed us. Online democracies have long since been replaced with propaganda and tightly controlled censorship, executed on behalf of the state, by privately held entities. We are unlikely to give up our dependence on these services, and the companies that own them are unlikely to give up their control without a fight. Neither is the system that has allowed them to thrive.

Though Varoufakis’ point on the connection between social-input and private profit is well-made:

We are the serfs inside the machine, giving away our free labour in exchange for free access to a system that surveils our movements and tries to control what we read, watch and believe.

Our only hope is for publicly-owned co-op competitors to Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon, where each and every user is a stakeholder in the information-business our data powers.

We need an online equivalent of the polio-vaccine: One that is public-domain and whose profits flow back into the hands of those whose whose content powers the platform.

But that is unlikely to happen without significant funds from a philanthropist with no desire for return on investment in the medium or even long-term. Until such time as that occurs, far from being its executioner, technology will be the behemoth that keeps capitalism alive.

Claire Connelly

Claire Connelly

Claire Connelly is the editor-in-chief of Renegade Inc. An award-winning freelance journalist and speaker, she is the founder of Hello Humans, an experiment in subscription journalism starting at just $1 a month.

Specialising in economics, technology and policy, Connelly is working on her first book and podcast series, How the World Really Works*. (*Title may be due to change). You can pre-order a copy here. #shamelessselfpromotion.

With more than a decade of experience under her belt, Claire has written for leading publications including The Australian Financial Review, The Saturday Paper, ABC, SBS, Crikey, New Matilda, VICE & others. She is the co-host of The Week In Start-Ups Australia, and features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio shows including Radio National's Download This Show, ABC's The Drum, Ten's The Project, and more.

How do you spend your days?

I am the editor-in-chief of Renegade and founder of Hello Humans, a subscription journalism experiment. I also freelance & consult for a number of publications of the editorial and commercial variety.I work from home. I am a bit of a work-hermit. I can mostly be found on the internet and at the dog park.

Why is this important to you?

Now more than ever, it is really important to make sense of the world around us. But in an age of information saturation it is becoming harder to distinguish the truth from bullshit. Part of the reason I am doing this is to help people differentiate between the truth and narratives being sold by people and organisations with vested interests.

I want to help people identify rhetorical red flags and immunise themselves against a sea of bullshit.

What drove you to focus on journalism?

I guess you could say my parents played a fairly big part in my becoming a journalist, much to their despair. Watching the news, reading the paper and listening to the radio was a compulsory activity in my household. My parents read me the paper before I could read.

Being engaged in the world around us was the way we repaid our debt to society.

They channelled the last of their politically active twenties and thirties into fostering our curiosity and distrust of authority. It wasn’t until I reached university that I fell in love with economics, politics and international relations.

Was there a particular moment you can remember that led you to this field?

The day Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, (the 4th of November 1995). I was 10. It was a weekend and I was in my winter school uniform complete with pinafor and scratchy tights. I played clarinet in the school orchestra and we were due to play at the old folks home. And I was pissed. And I said so.

The phone rang, and with tears rolling down her face, my mum turned to me and said the concert had been cancelled. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister had been killed.

I threw my stuff down and turned to get changed. But before I could my mum grabbed me firmly. I will never forget the look of disappointment on her face. She made some comment about how Rabin did not die for my convenience.
“You live in this house, you have clothes on your back and warm blankets and three square meals a day. You may not do anything with your education that we pay for, but you will be informed.”
She sat me down in front of the ABC and made me watch eight hours of assassination coverage. Little had I known the world was falling apart.

That day pretty much sealed my fate.

You can read more it here if you are interested.

What drives you professionally?

Justice. Egomania. Curiosity. And the fact there is no other profession more suited to my personality.

In your opinion what are the three biggest problems facing the developed and developing world?

Neoliberalism. Economic and social instability and insecurity. Banking fraud. Climate change. (Ok that’s four things. I never was very good at lists).

If you hadn’t become a journalist what would you have done?

My mum wishes I had studied law.

What led us to this moment in history?

We are living proof of a 30 year operation to permanently reduce the responsibility ofgovernment over the wellbeing of its constituents. You can read more about that here. (Link to neoliberalism piece).

What are the lessons we failed to learn during and since the 2008 crisis?

Austerity is a means of redistributing the profits in of productivity in which we all used to share to the world’s uber-wealthy.

The global financial crisis was one small step for man, one giant leap for the banking industry. It cemented financial crises as a permanent phenomenon and the formalisation of corporate revolution.

It signalled to the world that government exists only to support the private sector, triggering a wave of disillusionment which allowed neoliberalism to complete its task at hand: the complete and utter destruction of democracy, replacing it with a market society in which economics permeates every facet of modern life, from education to healthcare to law & order.

Even the military operates as a for-profit model, conveniently privatising any activity that sits outside the criminal justice system.

Some call the bail-outs of 2008 a failure of neo-liberalism. To the contrary, the private sector attained almost exactly what it set out to achieve: a system with no obligation to true economic recovery, that supports only profits and the corporations which generate them.

We keep voting for wealthy populist leaders thinking the knock-on-effects will put dollars in our pocket when the very opposite is true.

So long as voters continue to accept the mythic propaganda sown over the last 30 years that tax breaks & subsidies create jobs, deficits are bad, surpluses are good and that any instability is somehow the fault of the poor, our economic insecurity will only continue to increase.

Can you list some ‘baby steps’ out of the current economic mess?

A return to full employment.

A royal commission into the continuation of subprime mortgage fraud. (It didn’t go away after the GFC. In fact it was pretty much legalised).

Slash the cost of university degrees & create new pathways for the unemployed and underemployed to attain new skills and education.

Deficit spending to create infrastructure that will create the jobs of the future.

Support local agriculture.

Reduce private debt.

If you were a President / Prime Minister what would your first three pieces of policy be?

A job guarantee.
Re-introduce a price on carbon.
Legalise gay marriage.

Tell us something you have been wrong about?

I didn’t think that in 2017 that gay marriage and abortion would still be illegal in Australia.
Claire Connelly

One thought on “Serfs inside the machine: Why tech is unlikely to destroy capitalism

  1. “We need an online equivalent of the polio-vaccine:”

    Understated, but, well said! A good start.

    “One that is public-domain and whose profits flow back into the hands of those whose whose content powers the platform.”

    But, there are probably a better vaccines than that proposed! Such might include non commercialized social content. Maybe by democratic law.

    Judith Martin, Miss. Manners, might have some brilliant ideas on this. She has said, “People are more important than things.” Which applies here. She also talks about the delineations of commerce and social life.

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