Wark McKenzie’s book Capital is dead (2019) is one of those works that really makes you think. Its message is radical: what if capitalism has lost its dominant position? She suggests that we are no longer living in capitalism – but in something worse. She argues that the dominant ruling class is no longer those who own the means of production. Nor does it consist of a class of landlords, whose power is based on, well, owning land. The new ruling class owns and controls information.
McKenzie calls this new class vectoralists, because their power comes from managing and owning vectors of information. These vectors include the ability to transfer, store and process information. They provide the basis for the collection of so-called big data as well as for realising its predictive potential. Vectorialists therefore own and manage patents that give them a monopoly on related technologies, as well as brands and celebrities that capture our attention. Vectoralists also own various logistics and supply chains. This idea is interesting, because it seems that vectoralists are specifically attached to the bloodstream of the economy. This has been known before, but what is new in her thinking is that this should no longer be called capitalism, because it is something different from ’good old’ capitalism.
I am absolutely convinced that people need the right concepts in order to see things properly. I would say: we need a good theory. So it is clear why I am interested in McKenzie’s thinking. Even if it is only a first attempt to outline something new, it offers possibilities to extend the theoretical thinking on the subject. For those who are interested in different theories, and have spent countless hours immersed in them, it can be hard to accept the possibility that something new is just around the corner. A possible paradigmatic shift (in this case: this is no longer capitalism) can be frightening, as new concepts have to be created. And this is not just an academic exercise. Consider how much of our society’s institutions are still living in a Fordist world, even though many changes have already taken place within the very framework of capitalism. And what happens if we no longer even talk about the same economic system with any kind of prefix? It will be an earthquake, and the challenges it will throw up will not be mere maths, but will involve an incredible amount of politics. Who will control all this information, its flows and so on?
But as McKenzie writes, the view of the outright eternity of capitalism seems to dominate on both the right and the left. There also seems to be a view on the left that goes something like, ”Since this is not communism, it must be capitalism!” Perhaps the left is also plagued by being a slave to its own beliefs, which prevents it from seeing change before its eyes. Of course, she writes, that in the whole economic picture there is still a lot going on that can be called capitalism. There are still workers in factories making products and some of them are driving lorries from one place to another and some of them are answering the phone and so on. Yet she argues that what is now at stake is no longer simply the exploitation of labour through the ownership and control of the means of production, but precisely a kind of capture of additional information (compare to surplus value) from the individual worker and consumer in order to create the predictive models, which subordinate all activity to this political information economy. Perhaps here we can see how the capitalists will be made to work for their new master? Indeed, the book points out that there were some interesting battles and twists between capitalists and landowners as capitalism made its ascent. Why can’t we witness something similar today?
McKenzie Wark 2019. Capital is Dead. Verso. London/New York. Ebook.