The Techfare State: The ‘New’ Face of Neoliberal State Regulation

By Ali Bhagat and Rachel Phillips

A recent article in the New York Times takes aim at ‘How Big Tech Won the Pandemic’, highlighting how in the last year alone, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook posted a combined revenue of more than $1.2 trillion. While the pandemic has resulted in the loss of both work and life the world over, companies like Amazon have managed to expand their warehouses and their cloud computing infrastructure—and reaped unprecedented profits in the process. As the Times put it, ‘the pandemic created a peculiar economy that benefited some people and industries, including in technology, even as it battered others.’ 

But as many commentators have pointed out, the explosive growth of the tech giants must also be understood in relation to more overtly political conditions. It may be true that the technology industry has maintained a liberal, progressive, and socially equitable visage throughout the pandemic, even as it has subtly extended its multi-tentacled reach into new physical and digital spaces. Indeed, we know by now, that Big Tech has long thrived on regulatory evasion and the exploitation of legal grey areas and this is a dominant reading within critical political economy which has been at pains to point out how laissez-faire regulatory environments—particularly in the United States—have allowed the tech industry to sniff out and exploit new sources of profit, including those that have arisen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.  

In this literature, then, the tendency is to assume that it is an absence of state intervention that has underpinned the technology industry’s growing economic (and political) power. With our conception of techfare, however, we aim to push beyond these explorations of how Big Tech evades state control. Instead of focusing on state absences, we set out to highlight an equally significant dynamic: how the technology industry has become deeply entwined with the activities of the neoliberal state. 

Our research agenda is centred on one key question: how has the dramatic post-2008 growth of the American technology industry interacted with—and been shaped by—the neoliberal regulatory projects that have prevailed during this time? In pursuing this question, we focus on one pivotal arena of neoliberal statecraft in which Big Tech companies increasingly participate, but where their presence has gone largely unnoticed: the disciplining of the relative surplus population, particularly through consumer debt, policing, and imprisonment. 

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National Fiscal Redistribution as “International” Development Assistance

The histories of international development and foreign aid often focus on aid between independent nations. Williams’ (2013: 234) history of international development aid only begins from the British Colonial Development Act of 1929. Markovits, Strange and Tingley’s (2019) history of foreign aid focuses on aid between “nations” or empires. Helleiner (2014), for instance, traces the origins of multilateral development finance proposals to China’s Sun Yat-sen in 1919.

There is, however, a major problem with these histories. Their starting points reveal a methodological nationalist approach. The history of states and societies since the modern era, is however more complex. The early modern era is well known for the spate of state consolidations and national formations. It may be argued that intra-national transfers within modernizing nations may represent important forms of regional development assistance that have been left out of the consideration of the history of development assistance.

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From Post-Marxism back to Marxism?

The Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism I co-edited with Alex Callinicos and Stathis Kouvelakis aims to present the development of Marxism as a militant tradition in dialogue with other traditions and within itself. Even if it was conceived almost six years ago, the multiple crises we are confronting today – economic, political, social, gender, environmental and biological – vindicate the spirit of our project. The project seeks to look at Marxism as a tradition that is rooted in and addresses the totality of capitalist social antagonisms and, by doing so, is able to think strategically beyond capital. 

Several contributions challenge reductionist interpretations of Marx’s critique of political economy, and the idea that Marxism is irremediably Eurocentric and underestimates race, gender and ecology. This opens a space for a more complex, and I would say fertile, dialogue with Post-Marxists currents. The format of the Handbook – combining longer contextual essays and shorter essays on individual thinkers mainly – aims at facilitating this dialogue. We chose this format, rather than concentrating on themes and concepts, in order to capture the specificity of, and interactions between, individual thinkers and problematics. 

In the final part of the book, “Marxism in an Age of Catastrophe”, John Bellamy Foster and Intan Suwandi forcefully argue that Marx inaugurated traditions of thought that can intellectually encompass the present age of catastrophe, announced by the floods and fires around the world as well as by the Covid-19 pandemic. These reflections complement the first part of the Handbook, “Foundation”, which points to the strong connection Marx and Engels posited between the critique of political economy and a politics of working-class self-emancipation. Thanks to this connection, they were able to conceive of capitalism as a global, gendered, racialized and ecological class antagonism in which struggles over wages and working conditions are organically linked to struggles over dispossession, social reproduction, ecology, imperialism and racism. Support for the demands of the most oppressed is thus crucial for the advancement of the working class as a whole. 

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Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions

In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision to refrain from increasing the country’s extensive social grant payments—which now reach 18 million impoverished citizens—beyond the growth in inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a larger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt—which has now breached 80% of the debt/GDP ratio—and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30%.

Those familiar with the financialization scholarship pertaining to developing countries—that strand which portrays the global financial markets as a force that can alter committed policy trajectories on a whim (Koelble, 2004), as well as the more nuanced literature (Mosley, 2000; Hager, 2017; Streeck, 2014; Ansari, 2017)—may recognize the Treasury’s framing of South Africa’s fiscal dilemma. However, as much of the international development literature on industrial upgrading and state policy has noted (Wade, 2018; Alami, 2019; Rodrik, 2006), there is a third option available to policy-makers in developing countries beyond the binary of debt build-up vs. austerity; namely, comprehensive, employment generating state-led development.

This is precisely the case I make in my new book, published by Palgrave (2021), Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions. In addition to documenting the onset of a financialized accumulation regime in post-apartheid South Africa since the democratic transition and the ANC’s adoption of economic liberalization, the monograph also highlights the missed opportunities that could have allowed the country to embark on a self-sustaining path of industrial up-grading, inclusive development, and internal revenue generation. Such missed opportunities include the early rejection by party leaders of the heterodox “Macro-Economic Research Group” (MERG) policy cluster, the removal of the trade unions from broader macro-policy-making processes, the rejection of a modest reconstruction and wealth tax, and the abandonment of much of the “Reconstruction and Development Program” (RDP) platform in favor of the orthodox “Growth, Employment, and Redistribution” (GEAR) package in 1996. Had some of these missed opportunities been pursued, South African state officials would likely be in a much better position to currently adopt expansionary fiscal policies, and perhaps could have lifted their citizens out of poverty via inclusive development instead of cash-transfers.

Yet, as my monograph further documents, since the democratic transition Treasury officials have continued, despite recommendations from other government ministries such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), to veto or oppose heterodox policy proposals that could potentially offer South Africa a path away from the current neoliberal quagmire. Such proposed polices include capital controls, export taxes on raw materials, the utilization of foreign exchange reserves to capitalize State-Owned-Enterprises (SOEs), and targeting specific industrial sectors for subsidies and state promotion.

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Financialisation of healthcare in Brazil: new evidence

By Norberto Montani Martins, Carlos Ocké-Reis and Daniel Drach

The covid-19 pandemic is showing how important universal health systems are. As the virus continues to devastate communities and economies, many governments have started to look at them with different lens. Investing in public health systems should be mandatory, but austerity policies in peripheral countries are still the priority. Moreover, the increasing financialisation of the health sector produces conflicts that constraint the achievement of a truly universal and comprehensive public healthcare. This is what we address in our recent paper, where we argue that lead firms in the provision of healthcare plans seem to have become platforms for the accumulation of wealth by financial investors, a process that is making shareholder value the main guiding principle of firm behaviour.

A good example of such contradictions is Brazil. A universal health system called the Unified Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde, or SUS) was established in the 1988 Constitution. However, it would be misleading to affirm it has provided universal access and comprehensive care: since its inception, SUS faced an inadequate low level of public spending that jeopardized its mission. In the 2000s, the Brazilian government eventually increased public spending in healthcare, but a kind of paradox emerged as it also set up many policies to foster private healthcare and private accumulation in that sector (e.g., health-related tax expenditures).

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What You Exported Matters: Persistence in Productive Capabilities across Two Eras of Globalization

This blog was first published on the Rebuilding Macroeconomics website.

By Isabella Weber, Tom Westland and Maya McCollum

“The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep…” This was how John Maynard Keynes described the globalisation of the Belle Epoque before the First World War. London, and by extension Britain, was at the centre of the world economy: not just a global manufacturing powerhouse, but also the ruler of a vast colonial domain upon which the sun famously never set. The global division of labour was stark: Britain and other Western nations largely produced manufactured goods. But they also exported a whole range of temperate agricultural goods like wheat, beef and barley. Elsewhere in the European colonial empires, products like cotton, cocoa and coffee were exported, often at very low prices and sometimes with forced labour, to sate a growing demand in the global economic core for tropical luxuries. 

More than a century has passed since World War I heralded the collapse of this world order. Today, another globalization wave that has shaped the world since the 1980s is ebbing. The question we ask in our ESRC Rebuilding Macroeconomics project What Drives Specialisation? A Century of Global Export Patterns is simple: what is the legacy of the First Globalization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the economic fortunes of countries during the Second Globalization? Or in other words, to what extent have countries’ positions in the international economic order been persistent across the two globalizations with some trapped at the bottom and others floating on top?

To answer this question, we have assembled a large new database of global commodity exports from 1897-1906. We exploit the fact that this period was the high point of colonial trade statistics and use a large variety of primary sources in five languages. To the best of our knowledge, ours is the most ambitious census of world trade for the previous globalization to date. This allows us to investigate the long-term wealth of nations in ways that aren’t possible with GDP data. The latter is sparse and unreliable for large parts of the world before the Second World War.

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For a new macroeconomic policy in Colombia

In April 2021, Ivan Duque’s administration presented a tax reform bill labeled “Law of Sustainable Solidarity” to Congress. The bill contemplated an increment of the VAT on basic goods in conjunction with an increase in the marginal tax rates on the income of the so-called Colombian middle class. The vast majority of whom earns monthly less than 4,000,000 Colombian pesos (around 1,065 U.S. dollars). Although the bill put on the table contained some crucial elements for discussion, such as implementing a “basic monthly income” of 21 U.S. dollars (by far less than the current minimum wage). It contained little or nothing to effectively tackle Colombia’s high social and income inequality (with an official GINI of 0.526 for 2019).

The tax reform bill was presented in the mid of a severe economic and social crisis that had worsened due to the pandemic and against which the Colombian government has done hitherto little beyond the orthodox recipes. This triggered a general strike and nationwide social mobilizations that have already lasted over more than two weeks without any clarity as to their resolution as yet. The current social protest can be considered a continuation of a general strike that erupted at the end of 2019 and got into a rest due to the pandemic.

Yet, many elements behind the social movement go beyond dissatisfaction with the tax reform bill. Since 2016 after the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC, which used to be the oldest and biggest guerrilla in Colombia, the government hasn’t implemented most of the elements contemplated in the peace agreement. Also, although Colombia has had macroeconomic stability for more than 20 years, an indicator such as the official unemployment rate has consistently been above 10%. The level of poverty before the COVID-19 shock was near 32%.

Thus, the following question arises, what does it mean to have macroeconomic stability to the population? A call to think outside the box on what the government can or can’t do must be considered under other lenses. In view of the worsening of the social, political, and economic crisis in Colombia and the need to develop economic policy alternatives to the government’s orthodox position, a group of citizens and academicians wrote the open letter below to respond to those who argue the TINA mantra and believe that there’s a consensus in economics to support tax reforms amidst the COVID-19 epidemic.

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Land, property, technology: interrogating an infrastructural promise

Land has served as a central means of sustenance, but also as a nexus of wealth and power for people throughout the ages. The World Bank has estimated that more than seventy percent of the world’s population lack access to legally registered land titles. Existing land registries are centralized databases, vulnerable to corruption and destruction. There is an increasing turn towards emerging technologies such as blockchain for recording the relationships between people and land, coordinating and synchronizing that data for efficient governance, and making the information publicly available.

This essay explores the abstraction of blockchain as employed for formalizing land rights in emerging economies. Behind the seemingly neutral façade of the technology, diverse aspirational claims and narratives guide its implementation in different societies, shaped by particular histories and socio-political contexts. This highlights the need to explore blockchain-based land registries as distributed knowledge infrastructures, uncovering their broader embeddedness in older, non-digital modalities, and the “peopled infrastructures” of informal networks with their histories and cultural repertoires. As digital technologies can facilitate an illusion of enhanced visibility of some elements while obscuring others, I argue that more attention is needed to the role of broader colonial legacies and enduring North-South inequalities that frequently remain backgrounded in the adoption of such technologies.

An increasing number of governments are investigating the prospects of transferring their land registries to blockchain (Graglia and Mellon 2018). Blockchain applications are explored as enabling the formalization of property rights in the countries of the Global South, as well as providing more efficient coordination of real property markets in the Global North. Blockchain registries have several advantages as compared to centralized digital or paper-based databases. Records on blockchain are distributed and verified by a multitude of nodes in a peer-to-peer digital network, affording them more transparency and resilience. As new additions to the chain of blocks are cryptographically time-stamped, this makes tampering or accidental data loss less likely. Auto-executing “smart contracts” that transform legal agreements into code could mediate contracts (De Filippi and Wright, 2018).

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