Reclaiming the Right to Future Tense

Scott Skinner-Thompson –

By now, many of the societal, political, and distributive harms caused by large technology companies and so-called “social” media companies (Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.) have been surfaced.  They invade our privacy, decrease market competition, erode our sense of self and, despite their euphemistic label, our sense of community.  Shoshana Zuboff’s new book—The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—intervenes to weave together the seemingly balkanized practices of large, monopolistic data-harvesting companies, painting a more comprehensive picture of their decidedly anti-social strategies.  At the same time, she situates their tactics in comparative, historical context as a distinctively new market logic.  Zuboff labels the emerging economic regime created by these tech companies “surveillance capitalism” in order to capture the transformative shift they represent in how our society is being organized—organized by surveillance capitalist corporations, not by the people.  Put simply, surveillance capitalism is an economic ideology that deploys divergent technologies as a means of cultivating and monetizing our identities. 

As Zuboff underscores, surveillance capitalists treat the information generated by our online activity and our situated, physical activity (collected through the Internet of Things) as raw material available for extraction—a pool of resources that Julie Cohen has theorized and critiqued as the “biopolitical public domain.”  But even more troubling, once scythed and privatized by the surveillance capitalists, our information is sifted to predict and shape our future behavior.  The shaping of our behavior by surveillance capitalists threatens individual autonomy, yes, but also popular sovereignty and democracy itself.  This may sound hyperbolic, but Zuboff methodically explains how surveillance capitalism is undermining core democratic values and why the stakes are so high. 

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Law as the Code of Inequality and Wealth

Samuel Moyn –

pistor coverKatharina Pistor’s new book, The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality, deserves to be the essential text of any movement today that concerns itself with law and political economy. It establishes, as its central topic, how fundamental law is to political economy, in the tradition of classical social theory but with a considerable update in light of contemporary affairs. And, more fully than anything else I know, it vindicates the LPE intuition that legal intellectuals have something essential to bring to the current and ongoing debate about markets and injustice.

This is not because Pistor has detailed prescriptions for an emerging movement for reform of this or that area of law, but rather because she offers such a breakthrough set of theoretically-inflected descriptions of how law serves “capital,” and so often fulfills the interests of the rich rather than the rest. It has always done so, of course, but the current moment of extreme inequality requires a considerable effort to collect and synthesize the workings of law that prior generations already detailed. It also demands careful descriptions of the new forms of legal protection on a global scale that recent generations have failed to offer in one place and as part of a general account. Pistor even claims to offer a novel definition of “capitalism” that makes law central, insofar as law not only has a role to play in the creation of property, but also ensures its durability and convertibility.

To exist at all, and to be insulated and multiplied and transformed, wealth requires law and therefore state power to create it and protect it. Even land, the ur-form of wealth, is valueless except to the extent that law “coded” it, Pistor says, and the same is even more true of successor forms of mobile property down to the fancy inventions of contemporary finance that have successful allocated so much of what there is to own at the top of many societies. But creation is not the end of it. For Pistor, the additional key to understanding how law performs a constant and definitional function in the life of capital lays in tracing the ways that law secures capital’s endurance and allows for its transformation into new asset forms.

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