Digital capitalism and the global police state

My notes on Robinson, W. I. (2018). The next economic crisis: digital capitalism and global police state. Race & Class60(1), 77-92.

This paper places digitalisation in historical context, framing the current boom in terms of the fallout from the 2008 crisis. We are seeing a restructuring grounded in digitalisation and militarisation which will aggravate the conditions of the last crisis which still remain in place: growing consumer debt, vast speculative investment and an ever increasing degree of financialisation. Gross world product was $75 trillion in 201 while the global derivatives market was estimated at $1.2 quadrillion and currency speculation estimated at $5.3 trillion per day. Robinson argues that “the rapid digitalisation of global capitalism” needs to be understood alongside “debt-driven consumption and financial speculation” as an outlet for surplus capital (78). This is now coalescing in what he describes as the global police state encompassing:

  1. Ever more ubiquitous systems of mass control, repression and warfare that contain real and potential rebellion
  2. The increasing dependence of accumulation on the deployment of these systems in the face of chronic stagnation
  3. The move towards political systems which can be characterised as twenty-first century fascism

The potential causes of another crash are manifold: a burst stock market bubble, defaults in household or public debt or new international conflicts. Digitalisation is not a saviour of the system but rather an extension of how past crises have been negotiated. As he writes, “the rise of Computer and Information Technology (CIT) in the 1980s was itself a response on the part of capitalists to the crisis of overaccumulation, declining rates of profit, and well-organised working classes and social movements in the 1960s and the 1970s” (79). These facilitated a global restructuring which freed capital from redistribution at the level of the nation state (e.g. precaritisation of labour, trade liberalisation, growth of outsourcing, distributed global supply chains, increasing capacity to extract corporate subsidy, bond markets disciplining states) while leading to an escalation of inequalities which now constitutes a systemic risk. This has produced a new crisis of overaccumulation described on pg 80:

Given such extreme polarisation of income and wealth, the global market cannot absorb the output of the global economy. The Great Recession marked the onset of a new structural crisis of overaccumulation. Corporations are now awash in cash but they do not have opportunities to profitably invest this cash. Corporate profits surged after the 2008 crisis and have reached near record highs at the same time that corporate investment has declined.13 In 2017 the largest US-based companies were sitting on an outstanding $1.01 trillion in uninvested cash.

Where can this surplus be uploaded? Robinson reads Trumpism as a far-right response to this crisis which in fact aggravates it, shoring up the system through a nativist mobilisation of the disaffected but “this repressive neoliberalism ends up further restricting the market and therefore aggravating the underlying crisis of overaccumulation” (80). Accumulation by repression (the war on drugs and the war of terrorism, securitisation, militarisation leading to  Pentagon budget increased by 91% in real terms between 1998 and 2011, while defence industry profits quadrupled) is one response to this crisis which we can expect will be ratcheted up even further by Trumpism. Accumulation by digitalisation is the other outlet, with a transnationalisation of services driven by the platform economy coming to replace a globalisation of production and the financial system in an earlier phase. The growth of the tech sector in this context is described on pg 82:

The tech sector has become a major new outlet for uninvested capital in the face of stagnation. Investment in the IT sector jumped from $17 billion in the 1970s to $175 billion in 1990, then to $496 billion in 2000. It then dipped following the turn-of-century dot-com bust, only to climb up to new heights after 2008, surpassing $700 billion as 2017 drew to a close.

In the process a new class of intermediaries has been empowered, accumulating vast reserves through their data driven insertion into existing circuits of production and value. The tech giants have world leading capitalisations and the broader tech sector encompasses the digital economy, in spite of constituting a relatively small part of it once you exclude the giants. Its implications for employment have been bleak, creating unstable and low paid work while increasingly threatening a decimation of established occupations through the roll out of automation technologies. Furthermore, tech companies themselves are strikingly small employers, embodied by a billion dollar data centre built by Apple in North Carolina that only employs 50 full-time staff. Digitalisation intensifies the contradictions of capitalism and ultimately pushes costs down towards zero. If I understand correctly, Robinson argues this leaves it unable to continually absorb surplus capital because its very success erodes that capacity.

His notion of the global police state theorises what happens when “dominant groups turn to applying the new technologies to mass social control and repression in the face of real and potential resistance” as “digitalisation concentrates capital, heightens polarisation, and swells the ranks of surplus labour” (84). A terrifying new range of repressive technologies has been rendered feasible by digitalisation:

The new systems of warfare and repression made possible by more advanced digitalisation include AI powered autonomous weaponry such as unmanned attack and transportation vehicles, robot soldiers, a new generation of ‘superdrones’ and ‘flybots’, hypersonic weapons, microwave guns that immobilise, cyber attack and info-warfare, biometric identification, state data mining, and global electronic surveillance that allows for the tracking and control of every Robinson: The next economic crisis 85 movement. State data mining and global electronic surveillance are now expanding the theatre of conflict from active war zones to militarised cities and rural localities around the world.31 These combine with a restructuring of space that allow for new forms of spatial containment and control of the marginalised. The dual functions of accumulation and social control are played out in the militarisation of civil society and the crossover between the military and the civilian application of these advanced weapons, tracking, security, and surveillance systems. (84-85)

Investment in and deployment of these emerging repressive technologies provides a new vector through which accumulation can take place. A whole range of operations can be encompassed by this, from anti-crime sweeps and humanitarian missions through to drug enforcement operations and low or high intensity wars. It left me thinking of Nervous States by Will Davies and the significance of the eroding distinction between war and piece. It is inarguably that the global security sector is flourishing, ranging from arms manufacturers through to private military and security firms which now employ over 15 million people.

His terrifying suggestion is that the “Global police state and the rise of the digital economy appear to fuse three fractions of capital around a combined process of financial speculation and militarised accumulation into which the TCC is unloading billions of dollars in surplus accumulated capital” (86): financial capital supplies the direct and indirect investment, big tech develops and implements the technologies, the military-industrial-security complex applies these technologies through militarised accumulation. This extends from military conflict through to the spiralling armies of guard labour and ubiquitous private security systems. There is a propaganda component to this, with over 800 major films and 1000 television shows from 2005 to 2016 being influenced by US military and intelligence agencies in order to legitimate these operations and their targets. This is his account of the core contradiction at work, from pg 87:

There is a dangerous spiral here in the contradiction between a digitalisation that throws ever-more workers into the ranks of surplus humanity and the need for the system to unload ever-greater amounts of accumulated surplus. Once masses of people are no longer needed on a long-term and even permanent basis there arises the political problem of how to control this expanded mass of surplus humanity. Greater discipline is required, both for those who manage to secure work under new regimes of precarious employment and super-exploitation, and for those expelled and made surplus. The entire social order becomes surveilled.

Digitalisation renders workers redundant and controlling them in their redundancy offers a solution to the problem of overaccumulation that digitalisation has compounded. He suggests that nascent fascisms need to be understood as a preemptive strike at the working class against a backdrop of ever escalating tensions. There is a growing concern for the coercive exclusion of surplus humanity in lieu of a capacity or willingness to secure legitimacy (pg 88). Fascist movements are displacing the anxiety of downwardly mobile but historically privileged sectors of the global working class towards scapegoated communities presented as outside and threatening. The reality of Trumpism has been a neoliberalism on steroids only likely to accelerate the underlying downward mobility and anxiety.

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