Platform capitalism: a new era or business as usual? (Part I)

Aleksandra Piletić
Published on: 2022-09-21

This is part one of a two-part blog post series on platform capitalism. Read part two here.

For years, researchers investigating the rise and proliferation of digital platforms have heralded the onset of a new era: platform capitalism. The story goes that platforms are becoming so powerful and omnipresent that they are now dominating global capitalism. Nick Srnicek argues in his eponymous book: “The digital economy is becoming a hegemonic model: cities are to become smart, businesses must be disruptive, workers are to become flexible, and governments must be lean and intelligent.” A new strand of literature has engaged with this notion, building also on the fantastic pioneering work by scholars in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Media Studies, which elucidates the nuanced technological features of platforms (see for instance here, here and here). Platforms have upended labor relations, business models and urban mobility, ushering in the dominance of digitally-powered monopolies and oligopolies. In sum, it is to platforms that we should look if we are interested where capitalism is headed.

But are platforms truly so disruptive, or has innovation of this sort been a persistent feature of capitalism for centuries? What is so new about the monopoly practices of platforms? One article has drawn on Polanyi to stress that, instead of treating the platform economy as a “quasi-natural process,” we must pay close attention to the specific historical, social and technological conditions that gave rise to platforms. Another piece, adopting a perspective inspired by the Braudelian longue durée, suggests that features at the core of platform capitalism – notably, tendencies towards monopolization and concentration – are recurrent tendencies of the system, rather than technologically mediated disruption and novelty. Other recurrences have also been brought to light; one article has pointed to the automobile lineage of platforms, arguing that major continuities can be identified between platforms and the production, labor-management and data accumulation strategies of the automobile industry (esp. Toyotism). Thus, should we even be using the term ‘platform capitalism’ in the first place?

The dilemma of whether platforms represent continuity or change with preceding modes of capital accumulation is a significant one and is central to critical political economy inquiry. It is essential not only for shedding light on platform-induced changes within existing institutions, social relations and practices, but more broadly – for the purpose of understanding the transformative power of platforms. What are the precise changes platforms have brought about? And what does this suggest about their capacity to bring about radical social and political change in the future?

I argue that an analysis informed by the French Régulationist approach is an appropriate way forward – regulationist work is particularly attuned to the conjunctural features of capitalism and offers a convenient methodological avenue for studying shifts in social arrangements that facilitate capitalist accumulation. Namely, regulationists do not dispute that capitalism is inherently unstable and prone to crisis; however, they do posit capitalism as capable of displacing these crisis tendencies for a limited period to achieve temporary stability. These historically specific periods of relatively stable accumulation are called regimes of accumulation. Ultimately, the question is then – is so-called ‘platform capitalism’ a new regime of accumulation or is it merely a ‘moment’ – a blip – within the ongoing regime of accumulation?

Recent regulationist efforts to grapple with this very question suggest ambivalence (at best) in relation to whether platforms have caused any radical change. One group of regulationist scholars has argued that we should not understand the platform economy as an entirely new regime of accumulation, but rather as an endogenous transformation of financialized capitalism and pre-existing capitalist relations. The platform economy is, they argue, a “more intense version of the financialized regime of accumulation.” Robert Boyer, a leading figure within the regulationist approach, has also cautioned against hasty proclamations about the emergence of a new socio-economic regime. Platforms may have destabilized and disrupted earlier organizational forms, producing a new ecosystem within existing capitalist dynamics, he says, but this ecosystem has still not been generalized to such an extent that it delivers profitability and social acceptability.

My argument follows this logic to a considerable extent: rather than proclaiming the arrival of a new, platform-driven and -dominated social order, I argue that we should pay closer attention to the ways in which existing forms of capitalist accumulation have been hybridized, i.e. how particular innovations in the regime of accumulation have led to adjustments within the existing system, rather than a complete disruption and loss of systemic coherence. Methodologically, this allows us to study processes whereby platforms are shaped by the institutional environments within which they are inserted, as well as how this institutional environment transforms in response to platforms – all the while upholding the existing accumulation regime. A more nuanced, variegated and multiscalar reading of the various intersections between platforms and capitalism emerges (echoing a call made by my team members here).

In order to do so, it is necessary to explore how platforms have navigated the regime of accumulation which preceded the rapid rise and proliferation of platforms, i.e. neoliberalism, particularly its post-2008 crisis form. Tracing how platforms have engendered a process of hybridization will allow us to gain a more nuanced understanding of both the transformative, disruptive and discontinuous features of platforms and their co-existence, and newfound complementarities, with pre-existing neoliberal institutions. Since neoliberalism can mean many things, and has been conceptualized in very different ways, it is important to note that it is defined here as a finance-led regime of accumulation which emerged out of the crisis-tendencies of Keynesianism and proceeded to spread globally in a variegated and uneven fashion in the decades that followed.

Along regulationist lines, I therefore propose studying transformations in the neoliberal accumulation regime through institutional forms – the social compromises and modes of cohesion that mediate the antagonisms inherent in capitalist accumulation. These are the mechanisms of ‘normalization’ that allow stability to occur in a given capitalist conjuncture. While five institutional forms (the monetary regime, the wage-labor nexus, the competition regime, the forms of the state, and the international regime) are generally said to be at the core of any accumulation regime, one is of particular relevance here: the wage-labor nexus. Discussions of the disruptive features of platforms, particularly platform-mediated gig work, have focused on innovations in labor relations and work practices, and it is for this reason that I have chosen to investigate potential shifts in the institutionalization and socialization of labor in closer detail. In part two of this blog post, I will explore the transformations of the neoliberal wage-labor nexus under the influence of platforms more closely. This makes it possible to position continuities alongside disruptions, and to point to the varied forms that these hybrids take under the influence of platforms.