Digital technologies have helped capital to extend its grip ever deeper into our lives. But, leftist writer Evgeny Morozov tells Jacobin, the Left must also grasp these technologies’ potential benefits in building alternatives to neoliberalism.
An automatic telegraph relay in the Netherlands, 1961. (Wim van Rossem / Wikimedia Commons)
Evgeny Morozov has spent more than a decade studying the transformations unleashed by the internet. He became famous with two internationally awarded books, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2012) and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (2013), before turning to study the connection between technology, political economy, and philosophy.
Founder of the knowledge curation platform The Syllabus, his most recent work is The Santiago Boys, a nine-episode podcast focused on the experimental Chilean model in socialism led by Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular from 1970–73. It tells of radical engineers’ strivings to achieve technological sovereignty, the development of the Cybersyn project to manage the nationalization of the economy, and the country’s fight against ITT, the great technological multinational of the time.
Morozov has presented his work in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, ending his tour in New York, in a joint event with Jacobin. Simon Vázquez spoke to him about what it has to tell us about creating socialism today.
In several interviews you have argued that it is necessary to involve workers in decisions on technological development, instead of betting on technocratic solutions. Could you explain the problems of imposing technical visions that do not have popular support?
The technocratic solution in the case of today’s digital economy usually comes from the neoliberal right (or center) and insists on the need to police the platforms and what they do in order to improve competition and make it easier for consumers to move across platforms. Such solutions have traditionally been more prevalent in Europe than in the United States, partly for ideological reasons (under the influence of the Chicago School, Americans have been quite lenient in enforcing antitrust rules) and partly for geopolitical reasons (Washington doesn’t want to overregulate its own companies, fearing that their place might be taken by Chinese rivals).
Neoliberalism is market civilization, as it merges the progressive logic of society becoming ever-more complex and different with the market as the main instrument for achieving it. To counter this civilization, we need a ‘nonmarket modernism.’
So, it’s Europe that thinks that it can resolve the problems of the digital economy through more regulation. Some of it might, of course, be useful and necessary, but I think that such a technocratic approach has often been underpinned by a certain blindness toward geopolitics and industrial strategy and even the crisis of democracy that we can observe across the globe. It’s fine for the neoliberal technocrats to fake this blindness, but this would be a mistake for the more progressive and democratic forces to rally behind such calls. The problems of the digital economy won’t be resolved by regulation alone — not least because the digital economy, in both its Chinese and American versions, wasn’t created by regulation alone.
On the Left, and more specifically among socialists, there is a debate on planning and technology that in recent years has given rise to the emergence of a current known as cybercommunism. Do you identify with it, and what criticisms would you raise against it?
My main critique of their project is that it’s both too narrow and too broad in its ambitions. The way I see it, it’s an effort to deploy mathematical modeling and computation in order to administer what Karl Marx called the “realm of necessity.” I don’t doubt that for some basic basket of goods necessary for a good life — e.g. housing, clothing, food — an approach like this might be necessary. But I think we also have to be critical of the strict distinction that Marx draws between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom; the latter he mostly leaves undefined. But that’s precisely where creativity and innovation happen, while the realm of necessity is mostly the realm of social reproduction. Cybercommunism, like Marx, leaves the realm of freedom undertheorized, and, as a result, it doesn’t seem to have a sharp vision for what computers can do when it comes to enabling these more creative pursuits.
Contrast this to neoliberalism. It starts by refusing a strict distinction between the two realms, arguing that the market is both a system for satisfying our basic needs and demands — and an infrastructure for managing and taming complexity, i.e. the source of the new, the creative, and the unexpected. If you look at the digital economy, you see this fusionist logic playing out in full force: when we play, we also “work,” as it generates value for the platforms. And as we “work,” we also play, as work has become something very different from the Fordist times.
The uniqueness of Cybersyn is that it came out of Salvador Allende’s broader efforts to nationalize companies deemed strategic to the economic and social development of Chile.
The Left has traditionally rejected such fusion of the two realms, complaining of the biopolitical turn in modern capitalism, etc. But what if such a fusion is something the Left should embrace? And if so, how could the traditional answer to the neoliberal market as the central feature of the alternative system — i.e. the mathematical plan — be sufficient, given that it doesn’t seek to accomplish anything in the realm of freedom?
To put it at a higher level of abstraction, neoliberalism is market civilization, as it merges the progressive logic of society becoming ever-more complex and different with the market as the main instrument for achieving it. A better name for it would be “market modernism.” To counter this civilization, we need a “nonmarket modernism” of some kind. Cybercommunism does okay on the “nonmarket” part, but I’m not at all sure it even understands the challenge and the need to solve the “modernist” part of the equation.
Why turn back now to the experience of Cybersyn, a proto-internet project to use telex and computers to organize the economy? What is the political purpose of bringing up “what ifs” of the paths not taken? And what does “postutopia” mean, in this context?
Well, the most obvious reason for doing this is to sensitize the global public to the fact that the digital economy and society we have today are not the result of some natural tendencies of internet protocols but, rather, the result of geopolitical struggles, with winners and losers. I don’t think it’s correct to see Cybersyn as an alternative technological infrastructure, because, at the end of the day, there was nothing unique or revolutionary in its telex network or the software that it used or its Operations Room.
A better lens on it is as a contribution to an alternative economic system, whereby computers could have been used to better aid in the management of enterprises in the public sector. Similar management systems existed in the private sector for a long time — Stafford Beer, the brains behind Cybersyn, was already preaching them in the steel industry a decade before Cybersyn.
Dependency theorists saw that industrialization in itself cannot be the main objective; economic and social development is.
The uniqueness of Cybersyn is that it came out of Allende’s broader efforts to nationalize companies deemed strategic to the economic and social development of Chile, all of it informed by an interesting blend of structural economics from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) and dependency theory. It’s the end of that project — not just of Cybersyn — that we should be mourning. That’s why in my public interventions after the publication of the podcast, I’ve been so keen to stress the existence of what I call the “Santiago School of technology” (as counterpart to the Chicago School of economics). I think that once we realize that Allende and many of the economists and diplomats around him did have a vision for a very different world order, Cybersyn — as the software that was supposed to help bring that vision about in the domestic context — acquires a very different meaning.
In addition to offering a counterhistory of the Chicago Boys, one of the most interesting arguments you offer is that they were not the true innovators of the time, but that their work was limited to thwarting, in the hands of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s technological development and the Santiago Boys’s alternative to the incipient neoliberal model. Could you reflect on the contribution you make to the intellectual history of economic thought?
Well, throughout the presidency of Eduardo Frei Montalva, who preceded Allende, and then, of course, during Allende’s own rule, the Chilean economists that we know as the “Chicago Boys” had several kinds of critique to advance. One was of the corrupt and rentierist nature of the Chilean state; here the critique was that various interest groups leveraged their connection to the state to get favorable treatment and shield themselves from competition.
The other critique was that of policy prescriptions that came out of CEPAL and dependency theory; most of those policies went against the idea that economic development should be left to the market (instead, they defended, first, the idea of industrialization through import substitution, and, then, the need to protect national technological autonomy and sovereignty).
So, some of the Chicago Boys saw the Allende period as a consequence rather than the cause of a deeper crisis inside the Chilean society and economy; they really saw the workers and the peasants who elected Unidad Popular as just one of the many interest groups fighting to defend their interests inside a state system perceived to be corrupt and sectarian.
Whatever the substance of the Chicago critique, I think we err in seeing them as some kind of perceptive and pioneering economists who stepped in to save Chile with a heavy dose of neoliberalism. While Unidad Popular did make some errors in running the economy, it did have a coherent — and far more relevant — political vision of what Chile should do to be an independent, autonomous, and well-developed state in the global economy. Some might say that Chile, for all its inequality, got there. I think it didn’t get at all where it may have been — and where it may have been had it only followed the prescriptions of Allende’s Santiago Boys would have been today’s South Korea or Taiwan, countries that punch far above their weight technologically.
Another contribution you make in the podcast is to recover the tradition of dependency theory. In the last answer you imply that if Allende’s project had been allowed to prosper, today Latin America would be more just, as well as richer, and Chile, an alternative technological power, with a technological development model different from that of Silicon Valley. But what does dependency theory tell us about contemporary debates in the digital economy?
Dependency theory is a radicalization of CEPAL’s structural economics, which traditionally preached the importance of industrialization. It’s not very different from today’s digital gurus preaching the importance of digitalization. Dependency theorists, however, saw that industrialization in itself cannot be the main objective; economic and social development is. And, as they found out, the relationship between industrialization and development is not linear.
Digitalization conducted without a prior commitment to digital sovereignty is likely to create new dependencies and obstacles to development, especially as countries now have to swallow giant bills for cloud computing, artificial intelligence, microchips, etc.
Sometimes, more industrialization (which often worked as a euphemism for foreign direct investment) means more development; but sometimes it can mean no development or even underdevelopment. It was a debate rife with all sorts of intermediate concepts like Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s “associated development” or “dependent development,” which sought to show that countries can still develop even if industrialization is led primarily by foreign capital. The more radical theorists like Ruy Mauro Marini, Theotonio dos Santos, and Andre Gunder Frank argued that technological autonomy — the development of the country’s own technological base — is a prerequisite to the kind of industrialization that could lead to meaningful development.
In today’s terms, it would mean that digitalization conducted without a prior commitment to digital sovereignty is likely to create new dependencies and obstacles to development, especially as countries now have to swallow giant bills for cloud computing, artificial intelligence, microchips, etc. The dependencies are, of course, not just economic but also geopolitical, which explains why the United States has been so keen to block China’s efforts to achieve technological sovereignty in areas like 5G and microchips.
From this idea of subverting unequal relations, there is the question of industrial planning and state direction of the development process. What do you think was the contribution of Stafford Beer and the Chilean radical engineers in understanding, if not planning, the politics of cybernetic management?
Beer didn’t come to these questions from the more conventional questions of allocation and distribution that would normally be present in debates about national planning. Rather, he came to this agenda from the corporate environment, where it was much more important to think about how to adapt to a future that is always changing. In this sense, corporations tend to be humbler than nation states; they take future as it is, instead of thinking that they can bend it to their own national objectives. One of the consequences of this epistemic humility practiced by Beer was his insistence that while the world was getting even more complex, complexity was a good thing — at least as long as we have the right tools to survive its effects. That’s where computers and real-time networks came into play.
If we accept that the world is going to become even more complex, we need to develop tools of management — and not just tools of allocation and planning.
That’s one part that I still find extremely relevant about Cybersyn, as I made it clear in my remarks about cybercommunism. If we accept that the world is going to become even more complex, we need to develop tools of management — and not just tools of allocation and planning. I find this humility about one’s ability to predict the future and then bend it to one’s will rather useful, not least because it goes against the usual modernist temptation to act like an omniscient and omnipotent god.
Stafford Beer talked in his books about designing freedom; you talk about “planning freedom” and governing complexity. Can you elaborate on how this agenda would fit in, within what you pointed out earlier, the importance of talking about the “sphere of freedoms”?
As I explained above, the contribution of Beer to the traditional socialist agenda (with its statist focus on satisfying the most immediate needs of the population) has been to show that there’s much that computers can do in the realm of freedom as well; they are not just tools to be used in the realm of necessity. Beer’s thought closes the door to the kind of technophobic attitude that is still common among some on the Left; he thought — on my view correctly — that just ignoring the question of technology and organization would result in undesirable, highly inefficient outcomes.
We kind of know it intuitively, which is why we use simple technologies — from traffic lights to timetables — to enhance social coordination without bringing in chaos. But what if such technologies do not have to be so simple? Can’t they be more advanced and digital? Why trust the neoliberal account that the only way to coordinate social action at scale is via the market? That’s where, I think, Beer’s approach is very useful. If start with a very flexible, plastic account of human beings as always evolving and becoming, then we probably want to give them the tools by which they can push themselves (and the collectives they form) in new, completely unexpected, and untried directions and dimensions.
What’s happened these past two decades is that Silicon Valley has gotten there before the leftists did. That’s why we have tools like WhatsApp and Google Calendar facilitating the coordination of millions of people, with a nontrivial impact on the overall productivity. In this case, social coordination occurs, more complexity is produced, and society moves forward. But it doesn’t happen — contrary to the neoliberal narrative — by means of the price system, but, rather, by means of technology and language.
What’s happened these past two decades is that Silicon Valley has gotten there before the leftists did. That’s why we have tools like WhatsApp and Google Calendar facilitating the coordination of millions of people.
This Silicon Valley model, as we discovered more recently, is not without its costs, including politically and economically (just look at the proliferation of disinformation online or the concentration of artificial intelligence [AI] capabilities — the consequence of all this data being produced and gathered — in the hands of a number of corporate giants). So, this neoliberal nonmarket complexity comes at a huge price. What the Left should be thinking about are alternative non-neoliberal ways to deliver similar — and, perhaps, even better — infrastructure for social coordination.
Why do you think socialists have given up on some of these concepts? Does it have something to do with the intellectual defeat of Marxism in the Cold War? Or with not having paid enough attention to the debates in the Global South?
I think the answers have to do primarily with the overall intellectual dead end reached both by Western Marxism and its more radicalized versions. The more moderate camp bought into the neoliberal dichotomy between the market and the plan, accepting the former as a superior form of social coordination, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Someone like Jürgen Habermas is a good illustration of this attitude: he accepts the increasing complexity of social systems, but he simply cannot see any alternative to reducing complexity by means of the market or law, with technology being nothing more than applied science.
The more radical strands — the ones that culminated in cybercommunism — didn’t fully engage with critiques of Soviet planning and its incongruence with liberal democracy that came from the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. I am thinking of people like György Márkus, who, without renouncing Marxism, did write many profound critiques of what Marxists get wrong about — to cite Engels — the shift to the “administration of things” under communism.
There’s also a certain naive view of technology propelling the broader Marxist project, with its insistence on maximizing the productive forces (something that only the abolition of class relations under communism can achieve). This seems to ignore the highly political nature of striving for efficiency: what might be efficient for some might be inefficient for others. So, to proclaim that, objectively speaking, every technology would have some kind of objectively stated optimum toward which we must aim seems to be misguided. It’s just not what we know from science and technology studies.
This is not to say that such value conflicts are best resolved in the market — they aren’t — but I see no point in Marxists denying that they do exist. And once we acknowledge that they exist, then one may want to optimize for something other than efficiency — perhaps, what we want as a result of public policy is to maximize the emergence of polyvalent interpretations of a given technology, so that new interpretations of it and its uses can emerge in the communities using it.
That said, some Marxist thinkers — Raymond Williams, for example — have thought about complexity as a value that the Left should go after. Simplicity, as an overarching goal, just doesn’t easily square with progressivism as an ideology of the new and the different. And I think that Williams got it right: the answer to greater complexity lies in culture, broadly conceived.
So, instead of trying to answer to the neoliberals by claiming that the right counterpart to the market is the plan, perhaps the Left should be arguing that the right counterpart to the economy — as an organizing goal and method of this market modernism I’ve already mentioned — is culture, conceived not just as high culture but also the mundane culture of the everyday. After all, it’s as productive of innovations as the “economy” — we just don’t have the right system of incentives and feedback loops to scale them up and have them propagated through other parts of society (this is what capitalism excels at when it comes to innovations by individual entrepreneurs).
There are many debates in the European Union, the United States, and China about technological sovereignty. In many cases, they are capitalist visions, trying to protect national industries and escape what we could call free markets. You have used this same concept on several occasions in your interviews in Brazil. How does this type of digital autonomy differ and what dimensions does it comprise?
Well, there’s a pragmatic element to it and a utopian element. Pragmatically, I don’t think that technological sovereignty in the near term is achievable without reliance on some kind of domestic counterparts to the American and Chinese providers of the same services, be they in the sphere of cloud computing, 5G, or AI. On a more utopian plane, we are talking about a policy agenda that would harvest these services not in order to preach the gospel of start-ups and incubators — as often happens when the likes of Emmanuel Macron talk about it — but would actually push for a more sophisticated industrial agenda. In the Global South’s case, it would mean shifting away from a development model tied to exporting raw materials, as these economies (especially in Latin America) have done traditionally. But both on utopian and pragmatic grounds, it’s important to keep this discussion tethered to a discussion about economics — and not just about innovation or national security. Without economics, the agenda of technological sovereignty will always be flat and somewhat one-dimensional.
Given the current geopolitical correlation of forces, the existence of progressive governments in Latin America, and the consolidation of the BRICS as an active nonaligned movement in the ongoing “Cold War 2.0” between the United States and China, do you think that the Global South can be a kind of global outpost, an inclusive vanguard in terms of technology? What forms do you think a digital internationalism would take in this context?
I don’t quite see where else this opposition to the hegemony of Silicon Valley can come from. It has to rely on regional and international partnerships and alliances, for the simple reason that the costs involved are too huge. But the extra factor is to avoid getting into individual negotiations with the likes of Google and Amazon. While I don’t believe in the techno-feudal thesis that preaches that these companies are not as powerful as nation-states, they do have the American state behind them — and often that state is, in fact, more powerful than the states in the Global South. That’s why it’s important to reexamine past efforts at such cooperation that had technological sovereignty as their goal, the Andean Pact being the foremost example.
Signed by five nations in Peru, this pact’s main objective was to overcome external trade barriers and promote regional cooperation to foster industrialization and economic development. Orlando Letelier, Chile’s foreign minister under Allende, led the negotiations, highlighting the need to address the exploitation derived from technological property and dependence on foreign companies. Letelier proposed the creation of something like a technological equivalent of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Andean Pact, to facilitate developing countries’ access to technological advances and patents. These are the kind of ideas at the international level that we need today.Original post