The 21st century corporation is using algorithmic-based intelligence to accumulate data on a massive scale. Social movements need to grasp this change quickly.
By Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami
Four centuries after the East India Company set the trend for corporate resource extraction, most of the world is now in the grip of unbridled corporate power. But corporate power is on the cusp of achieving “quantum supremacy” and social movements in the digital age need to understand this in order to shift gears in their struggles. The quantum shift here comes from “network-data” power; the ingredients that make up capitalism’s digital age recipe.
Contemporary capitalism is characterized by the accumulation of data-as-capital. Big Tech, as digital companies are collectively known, use the “platform” business model. This model provides a framework for interactions in the marketplace by connecting its many “nodes” — consumers, advertisers, service providers, producers, suppliers and even objects — that comprise the platform ecosystem, constantly harvesting their data and using algorithms to optimize interactions among them as a means to maximize profit.
The platform model emerged as a business proposition in the early 2000s when internet companies offering digital communication services began extracting user data from networked social interactions to generate valuable information for targeted advertising. It is estimated that by 2025, over 30 percent of global economic activity will be mediated by platform companies, an indication of the growing “platformization” of the real economy. In every economic sector, from agriculture to predictive manufacturing, retail commerce and even paid care work, the platform model is now an essential infrastructural layer.
Control over data-based intelligence gives platform owners a unique vantage point — the power to shape the nature of interactions among member nodes. Practices such as Amazon’s segmenting and hyper-targeting of consumers through price manipulation, Uber’s panoptic disciplining of its partner drivers, and TripAdvisor’s popularity ranking algorithm of listed properties, restaurants and hotels are all examples of how such platforms mediate economic transactions. The accumulation of data that feeds algorithmic optimization enables more intensified data extraction, in a self-propelling cycle that culminates in the platform’s totalizing control of entire economic ecosystems.
Amazon for instance, is no longer an online book store, and was perhaps never intended to be. With intimate knowledge about how the market works, Amazon is a market leader in anticipatory logistics and business analytics, providing both fulfillment and on-demand cloud-based computing services to third parties. Not only has it displaced traditional container-freight stations in port cities, it has begun to look increasingly like a shipping company. The dynamics of an intelligence economy have led to large swathes of economic activity being controlled by a handful of platform monopolies.
Studies suggest that in a matter of a couple of decades, platform monopolies have overtaken oil, automobile and financial corporations in market capitalization. Today, platform-based business models account for seven of the world’s top eight companies ranked by market capitalization. The pan-global platform corporation, with its DNA of data-based intelligence, has replaced the trans-national industrial corporation as the Leviathan of our times.
Enter the intelligent corporation
As the dominant form of economic organization in the capitalist world order, the corporation has always wielded power, not just in the market but also in political and socio-cultural realms. The rise of the “intelligent corporation” defined by the political economy of data capital has produced qualitative shifts in the exercise of corporate power, including the following.
From dominating the market to becoming the market
Like its predecessor, the intelligent corporation also aims at complete market domination. In platform-based capitalism, local business models based on intimate contextual knowledge are completely displaced by the data-based intermediation of marketplace and social transactions. It is by eliminating these disparate pockets of capital accumulation that platform owners maximize their profits.
The intelligent corporation also goes a step further, moving beyond “dominating the market” to “becoming the market.” Integrating across business lines, these companies both operate a platform and promote their own goods and services on it. This places them in direct competition with the businesses that use their infrastructure, and creates a conflict of interest. For example, Amazon uses its product marketplace data to consolidate its private labels, launching high-demand products at prices that undercut third-party sellers.
In this new strategy for acquiring market power, long-term market monopolization is privileged over the ability to break-even in the short run. The ecosystem that a platform seeks to capture has room only for one winner with the wherewithal to forgo immediate profits and invest in business integration — through aggressive acquisition — and systematic data-layer development. Other competitors are destined to fall by the wayside.
From cheap labor to freedom from labor
In the capitalist economy, the key contradiction is between capital and labor. Capital is in a perennial quest for freedom from labor through labor-substituting technological advances and territories to shift production to reduce labor costs. In the intelligence economy, capital seems to have come very close to realizing its primordial pursuit.
Using 360° surveillance, the intelligent corporation creates a self-optimizing ecosystem, manipulating each node, expanding its captive network, accumulating data capital and entrenching its dominance. It is able to achieve a global operational footprint with few assets and a minuscule employee base. Think Uber. Uber drivers are not considered to be employees in most places where the company runs its business. With a god’s eye view of the city and its roads, the customers and the driver, Uber takes over city transport, often without owning a single taxi. Passing off the liability to the driver, who must take a high-interest loan to acquire a vehicle to become Uber’s coveted “partner,” the corporation extracts from the driver more than just labor time.
In traditional labor-intensive manufacturing and services sectors, data capital is slowly but surely affecting far-reaching transformation. Projections show that automation based on artificial intelligence (AI) will eventually displace labor. It is estimated that over 40 percent of the global workforce will lose their jobs in AI-led disruption of manufacturing over the next 15–25 years. A limited number of high-paying jobs may open up for individuals with advanced skills in the development of data and AI technologies. But most of the labor force will end up in low-paid, personalized service work.
For countries in the Global South, the challenge will be especially pernicious. As rising wages erode the comparative advantage of labor in these economies, the shift to AI technology is likely to trigger a re-shoring trend whereby factories are relocated to richer countries that offer more sophisticated infrastructural support for deployment of AI systems. According to the World Bank, over two-thirds of the workforce in developing countries are likely to lose jobs. It is not clear how these changes will shift gender-based segmentation and gender hierarchies in labor markets. However, going by current trends, women seem to be the first to lose their jobs in this transition, with a reversal of both pay and status gains.
Planetary-scale time-space enclosure
Capturing previously non-commodified time and place has always been a central strategy of capitalist expansion. In the intelligence economy, we are witnessing a new phase of such “primitive accumulation” – through “data dispossession.” The expropriation of data from everyday social exchanges through the platform business model is comparable to the expropriation of natural resources for capitalist production in a previous age. The pervasive data extraction by platform companies has transformed data-mined social interaction into a factor of production, just as invaluable a resource as land for the creation of goods and services. The centralization of wealth and power today, derives from an unprecedented quality and scale of dispossession.
The dynamic of data dispossession is self-propelling. It is now well understood that platforms aggressively pursue a strategy of locking-in users, offering instant gratification in exchange for data and making it costly for them to leave a platform. The Chinese “super-platforms” WeChat and Meituan-Dianping combine news, entertainment, restaurant reviews, food delivery and ride-hailing, along with cross-cutting applications such as payment systems and digital wallets, demonstrating a “stickiness” that is almost addictive.
When participation in the platform on the platform owner’s terms becomes de facto the only choice for economic actors, data extractivism is normalized. Similar to the predatory practices of historical colonialism, the platform tactics of the intelligent corporation function as a neo-colonial project. The difference is that this time around, rather than European companies, the US and Chinese platform companies are in the driving seat.
A profoundly unsustainable exploitation of the natural world accompanies the rapid inroads of the intelligent corporation. Take the case of the vast ecological footprint of the online food-delivery sector. According to a 2018 study published in the science journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, door-to-door fast-food delivery in China accounted for a nearly eightfold jump in packaging waste between 2015 and 2017, from 0.2 to 1.5 million tonnes. This has coincided with the exponential growth of the sector in the country, where the number of customers using food-delivery platforms has gone up from zero in 2009 to 406 million by the end of 2018! The intelligence economy is a veritable resource guzzler whose network data devices are expected to be consuming about one-fifth of global electricity by 2030 just to keep going.
The loss of self-determination for individuals and communities in these new intelligence-based modes of production reflects an asymmetry in power that was previously impossible. This is the route through which the brand-new corporation colonizes bodies and nature, takes control of production and social reproduction, and intensifies accumulation on a global scale.
The “deep corporate” and the death of the social contract
It is no secret that in the digital era, the deep state has had a makeover. Edward Snowden’s revelations and witness testimonies from China’s Uighur-dominated Xinjiang have exposed the dark workings of the contemporary military–industrial complex, the unholy nexus between Big Tech and the state. Trade justice activists have constantly pointed to the “hidden hand” of Silicon Valley and Chinese corporations using their governments to bat for their interests, reducing policy decisions to executive fiats for entrenching their power.
But what is only recently coming to light is the rise of the “deep corporate” — the extension of the Kraken-like tentacles of intelligent corporations into the heart of public life. The subsuming of social life by platform capitalism has distorted the political space thanks to the echo chambers of the automated public sphere. The contagion of mispropaganda and informational warfare in political campaigning has become impossible to contain in a public sphere determined by algorithmic filters. In this scenario, deliberative democracy itself is under the threat of extinction.
The social credit system being developed by China in partnership with eight tech companies takes the “corporatization” of governance to a whole new level. Access to benefits and citizens’ guaranteed rights are now predicated on behavioral scoring on the basis of online purchase history, financial transactions and social media connections on the partnering platforms. With the archetypal “good consumer” becoming the deserving citizen, citizenship is thus dislocated from political claims. The “deep corporate” acquires the formal authority to mediate the social contract.
Living with the intelligent corporation
We are living through a phase in capitalism that is marked by extreme market concentration, unprecedented inequality in wealth and the declining share of labor in global income; a state of affairs that has led even the IMF to express caution. It is no coincidence that this period of intensified economic injustice has coincided with the rise of platform capitalism and its real-world vehicle, the intelligent corporation.
What does living with the intelligent corporation mean?
What is new about this phase of capitalism that has spawned the intelligence economy is a deeply qualitative shift. Datafication and data capital transform the way capitalist “accumulation by dispossession” happens. “Intelligencification” makes plausible a planetary-scale colonization and commodification of everyday life by the new corporation in ways previously impossible. Both nature and caring bodies are trapped in a planetary enclosure insofar as everything and everybody can be turned into data.
It also feeds off and emboldens the financialization apparatus that runs the neoliberal economy. Through the perverse confluence of data and finance, the intelligent corporation universalizes and naturalizes its authority, destroying the marketplace of things and ideas.
Through data extractivism, the intelligent corporation ravages sociality, taking the ideological project of neoliberalism all the way to the expropriation of the political. This is a deep take-over, an “ontological encroachment” of human subjectivity.
Where does all this leave us?
As UNCTAD has highlighted, the pace of concentration of market power is extremely worrying. Consider this: Amazon’s profits-to-sales ratio increased from 10 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2015, while that of Alibaba increased in just four years from 10 percent in 2011 to 32 percent in 2015.
Policymakers across the world are struggling to reform their legacy laws to rein in the intelligent corporation. Even the domestic governments of powerful US and Chinese platform corporations are struggling to contain their excesses. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is currently investigating Amazon and Facebook for abuse of market dominance while the US Justice Department is probing Google. The state of California is facing massive resistance from Uber and Lyft to its new regulation for labor rights of “gig” workers, with the two companies currently leading a $60 billion ballot initiative to extricate themselves from employer’s liability. In November 2019, the state administration for market regulation in China had to hold a meeting with Alibaba and other online retail platforms about their strong-arming of third-party vendors, in violation of existing regulations to curb anti-competitive conduct.
The loopholes of pre-digital taxation laws based on a physical presence in a given country have been effectively exploited by platform companies to escape tax liability, through profit shifting to low-tax jurisdictions. Similarly, when faced with liability for unfair market practices in overseas markets, it is very easy for platform companies to shift liability to their parent company outside the jurisdiction. For instance, Uber in South Africa resorted to the defense that its partner drivers were employees of the parent company headquartered in the Netherlands and not the South African subsidiary, in order to evade its liabilities under existing labor laws. The lack of binding international regulations governing cross-border data flows has also aided rampant data extractivism,
More recently, in the wake of malpractice lawsuits brought against Big Tech by their own employees; exposes about founding CEOs who have enjoyed a godly status; and public disenchantment with multiple revelations of clandestine data mining and algorithmic gaming, the early sheen seems to be wearing off. Google’s parent company Alphabet can no longer use its “Do the right thing” motto without irony. Facebook has been forced to switch to the “too big to fail” defense from the “protector and defender of the freedoms of the global community” line. Alibaba may not be able to proclaim its commitment to the development of small and medium enterprises in Africa for much longer. The façade has crumbled. And this rupture in the discursive hegemony of the intelligent corporation in which we are currently situated is the right moment to mount a collective challenge.
So, resist we must, so that the wealth of data and of networks can be appropriated and used to create a just and humane society. This means taking the intelligent corporation by the horns, and forging a movement that is able to grapple with the ethical–political boundaries of digital intelligence.
Taming the Leviathan and reclaiming the planet
Given the enormous economic and political clout of the modern corporation in the age of data, unshackling people and the planet from corporate power is an urgent task. Struggles against the extreme unfairness of the global trade and intellectual property regime by transnational social movements have shown the necessary connection between the agenda for development justice and the dismantling of corporate power.
Building alliances among movements has become a vital strategy in halting TNCs’ inexorable plunder. The trade justice movement against corporate globalization, the environment movement’s quest for sustainable development, feminist struggles to reclaim the body and the sphere of social reproduction from capital and workers’ struggle against the intensified squeeze on labor and the dismantling of social protection in neoliberal globalization are inspiring examples in this regard. Transnational civil society has painstakingly built alliances and solidarities across these movements to expose corporate excess, bringing pressure on the UN for a global binding treaty on TNCs’ human rights obligations in the face of near-insurmountable odds.
In the digital age, as corporate power assumes indomitable proportions — with tech CEOs carving out data dominions that they rule over — current frameworks of power analysis and action may not go very far. A concerted and coherent strategy is urgently needed in order to enable a more equitable distribution of the gains of data-based intelligence. The Digital Justice Manifesto released in November 2019 by the Just Net Coalition — through a process of strategic and sustained dialogue between digital rights, trade justice, feminist, environmental, labor and human rights groups and activists — outlines such a roadmap. As the Manifesto underlines, we need immediate action along three broad fronts to reclaim digital power from the intelligent corporation:
(a) Wrestling back ownership of our personal and collective data and intelligence by instituting an economic rights framework for data resources.
(b) Governing critical platform infrastructures as public utilities.
(c) Enforcing a local-to-global governance model for digital and data infrastructure that supports local economies and democratic self-determination of collectivities, preventing the enclosure of entire market and social ecosystems by a centralized intelligence. In other words, the governance of tech infrastructure must enable the flourishing of disparate local economies and make room for multiple platform models to function — co-operatives, social enterprises, public etc. — challenging the totalizing impetus of global intelligence capitalism.
Neoliberal globalization and financialization have led to profoundly unequal societies. The impunity of the TNC has been central to this dynamic. Social movements have placed several creative proposals to counter this: mandating charter renewal every five years overturning the principle of corporations’ perpetual legal existence; taxing stock trade on the basis of the holding period to contain excessive financial speculation; placing a cap on the individual assets of founders/CEOs and so on.
“Intelligencification” demands a new frontier for resistance. The power of the intelligent corporation must be contained through tactics small and big in political and cultural realms. A new wisdom about the governance of data must be explored for a truly emancipatory future for all.