Digital Neofeudalism

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* Article: Digital Neofeudalism. Crisis of Network Politics and the New Topology of Rent. By Matteo Pasquinelli. Paper for the Liquid Democracies conference at Transmediale festival, February 2010



"Digital neofeudalism: The internet is a liquid pyramid. Indeed digital networks are liquid, flexible and stretchable. But they have these properties in any direction and for any actor. The digital matrix made cooperation easier but also made competition easier. In particular the digital made global monopolies easier and faster to establish.

Each new digital platform has become hegemonic in a short time. Take Myspace, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter. The internet is becoming faster and faster a stratification of one-dimensional protocols. It’s a very Darwinist scenario: the creative class is just the opium for the masses: here very few players win. Not to mention the layer of proprietary hardware, smartphones and the lineage of iPhone, iPod, iPad. Here we are talking of huge techno-conglomerates.

This liquid matrix of the digital should be drawn along these 3 tensions: user cooperation, labour competition, corporate monopolies. Which is the strongest vector? Are we sure that digital cooperation is stronger than digital monopolies?

Network society is not horizontal but polarised. An example. The digital changed the world of music in quite a neofeudal way. Peer-to-peer networks affected both the big names of music industry and the glorious underground, both. The digital made the music scene more competitive and polarised, only few names can survive a market with no more sales of records. The outcome scenario is an opposition between the few stars selected by media corporations and a multitude of musicians forced to a local economy of concerts, to a performance-based economy. This pyramid is quite polarised, clearly more squeezed in the middle than a decade ago.

Or, the crisis of the cognitive middle-class. We talk often of the crisis of the industrial working class as a political identity. But what is in front of our eyes today is specifically the crisis of the cognitive middle class. There is an interesting world in the French critical theory discussing cognitive capitalism: déclassement, that means ‘declassing’, scaling down, when a social class moves to a lower position, losing social and economic prestige. In the internet decade we experienced the massive déclassement of the cognitive workers to precarious workers. Neofeudalism is also this disempowerment of the middle players. 9. Digital neofeudalism: Or, the new spaces of rent. This crisis of the social subject of the cognitive middle class actually happened along a transformation of the economic structure — that is of the regime of value production. The dominant business model of cognitive capitalism and also of the internet has shift from profit to rent. What does it mean this?

To be schematic we can say that profit is the income made selling commodities, rent is the income made by a monopolistic exploitation of spaces. In feudal times, it was the exploitation of land cultivated by farmers, in the internet age it’s the exploitation of the immaterial spaces cultivated by cultural producers, prosumers and the notorious Free Culture.

‘Rent is the new profit’ state some political philosophers and economists like Carlo Vercellone, Christian Marazzi and Toni Negri. Rent is also the typical economic model of the so called FIRE economy: from Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. It’s typical of cities like New York and its results are in front of our eyes as the recent financial crisis. Rent is also typical of the new Russian and Arab oligarchies of oil: exploitation on vast lands rich of natural resources.

The internet, similarly to the geopolitical scenario, is becoming the matrix of a new feudal system. Few barons, multitudes of freelancers. So maybe, instead of liquid democracy, we should talk of liquid neofeudalism."