Commentary. New technologies contain strong cooperative tendencies, which give an impulse toward the establishment of production systems capable of self-design and self-regulation. Interconnectivity is an exceptional opportunity for workers to design alternative projects together.

Tech is an opportunity for labor, if we’re creative enough to seize it

As the ongoing disruption of Europe continues (a development pleasing to Trump and Putin), the Italian government has proposed a draft budget which purports to be an homage to Trump’s greatest hits: a deficit hike, protectionist isolation and tax cuts.

Instead of focusing on the controversy on the irrational debt-related provisions contained therein, the European Commission should ask Italian leaders the following question: is this what Italy really needs in this time of difficult historical transition? Perhaps Di Maio is not aware that Trump’s tax cuts and fiscal amnesty aimed at repatriating American capital—after all, as we have already seen, there is no lack of ambition by the 5 Stars when it comes to amnesties—has only benefited corporate profits, transferring $1.5 trillion from the federal budget to pad the bottom line of large corporations, increasing their profits by 16 percent in the second quarter of 2018, and awarding a quarter of the total relief to those with an income above $1 million.

According to the argument made by Francesco Saraceno in his fine book La scienza inutile. Tutto quello che non abbiamo voluto imparare dall’economia (“The useless science: Everything we never wanted to learn about economics,” LUISS, 2018), we need to think in a radically novel way about what the appropriate policies to revive the global and national economies would be, and about which avenues could get us out of the uncertainty that weighs upon our future. The question is which policies would be the contemporary equivalent of the New Deal, of the Bretton Woods agreements, of Keynes’s thought and of the welfare state, able to cause a shift of power from finance to manufacturing and to transfer the focus from expanding equity indices to the expansion of the real economy. In short, what policies will increase social welfare?

In Saraceno’s book, the theme of investments is joined with that of the renewed crucial importance of labor, and both come together as part of the larger issue of a “new development model” for our age of extraordinary climatic, ecological and digital change: while it is important to invest in traditional physical infrastructure (which must be renewed and modernized), it is vital to expand the new emerging sectors, because investments in environmental protection, land redevelopment, the development and spread of alternative energy, pollution clean-up, saving materials, recycling, and other similar sectors have the additional great advantage of being job creators and being oriented toward the future.

The technological innovations and the digitization of the economy are themselves the factors that could favor the construction of economic paradigms oriented toward social needs, public goods and common goods. Questions about the role of “work” and about the “ends” of such a “new development model” must return to the center of attention, as well as questions about the mechanisms of acquisition of the profits resulting from productivity, about contractual models, about the regulation of the labor market and about the possibility to institute “minimums” and “maximums” when it comes to compensation.

Therefore, instead of self-indulgently proposing measures that would only offer remedial compensation after the fact—such as the mix of tax cuts and the (so-called) “citizenship income”—what would be needed is “structural” policies able to act ex ante on the mechanisms of accumulation and production, and which, in this context, would be able to give rise to new forms of reflection on the very concept of work, the capital/labor ratio and economic democracy.

The technological evolution currently underway has two contrasting facets. The first is the extraction of enormous quantities of data and of information from individuals and its commercialization and transformation into profits for Google, Facebook and other corporations. This furthers a kind of “emotional pornography” in the extension of one’s free participation in the accumulation of profits and power for the benefit of others, leading to a constant self-exhibition and “gamification,” in which the ceaseless offer of new stimuli develops into “game-like” forms (for example, social media “likes”). The result is a limitless expansion of both the logic of service and that of competition.

On the other hand, there is the non-inevitability of both the transformation of each element of knowledge into information and of the ambition to modify these behaviors by manipulating and suggesting desires that one never had before. One can escape these tendencies, particularly if one becomes able to accurately criticize both the “political rationality” of innovation as well as its “scientific rationality,” and, in particular, “algorithm rationality,” with its claim to reflect an objective naturalization which aims at transforming all these phenomena into states of necessity, closed off to any alternate realm of possibility.

In this context, one has to deal with the issues of economic democracy and with innovative initiatives regarding “property rights”—topics that have been completely ignored by the Lega and the M5S. The paradox of the knowledge economy—i.e. that instead of encouraging widespread grassroots activities and small businesses, which would seem to be its natural beneficiaries, it actually rewards large monopolistic enterprises—is due to the nature of knowledge itself as, in itself, a “non-exclusive good,” which can be made available either as a public good or as a private commodity. This implies that, when knowledge is not made available as a public good, there is always a wasted potential in terms of its other uses, which would not have required any additional cost—a waste that manifests as lower investment, less production (at least of immaterial goods), lower productivity and less development.

Accordingly, we need to clearly identify this stagnation-inducing tendency in the behavior of the “capitalism of intellectual monopolies,” which, having appropriated for themselves the benefits from privatizing the economy and transforming knowledge into monopolistic rents, lead to negative effects on investment, growth and income distribution.

Nonetheless, new technologies contain within themselves strong cooperative tendencies, which give an impulse toward the establishment of production systems capable of self-design and self-regulation, opening exceptional “windows of opportunity” which, instead of being left prey to a capitalism animated by the desire to strengthen the traditional power relations, can instead be used by workers who want to “co-design” alternative projects together. The massive dose of “interconnectivity” that comes with today’s innovation is interwoven with a higher dose of “cognitive potential”—and this confluence, as it gives a powerful role to labor while generating a greater level of dissemination and circulation of information, comes into direct contradiction with the centralized management of companies.

We find ourselves at this crossroads where these different challenges all meet, which contain both inherent risks and opportunities—ones which, however, only a highly creative political spirit would be able to seize.

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