Neoliberal Capitalism is Dead. Long Live ‘Surveillance Capitalism’?

In May last year Joseph Stiglitz claimed neoliberal capitalism was dead. ‘The neoliberal experiment – lower taxes on the rich, deregulation of labour and product markets, financialisation, and globalisation – has been a spectacular failure… Neoliberalism must be pronounced dead and buried.’[1] Much has been written on the failings of neoliberalism. But are there any insights worth salvaging? And what comes next?

For decades we have lived under the influence of neoliberalism, accepting that markets can run society more effectively than governments. Underlying this ideology are arguments which insist that attempts to manage the economy are always doomed to failure.

The market, it was claimed, is unknowable and ineffable. Any attempts at ‘planned economies’, Hayek and others observed, would inevitably result in totalitarianism. Governments would seek ever more information regarding the lives of their citizens in an effort to predict and manage markets.

The rise of computer-mediated global networks had at first appeared to justify these arguments. Markets were simply too fluid and interconnected for centralised management by any nation state. These arguments convinced political leaders across the world, principally Thatcher and Reagan, to ‘free’ their economies from such attempts at management. In their place, private enterprise would lead development, with its frontline insights and dynamic abilities to respond to changes in the mercurial market.

As public industries and services were one by one transferred to private ownership and control, the continuing authority of nation states appeared to raise questions over the apparent ‘neoliberalisation’ of the global economy.

Scholars increasingly observed that neoliberalism struggled to establish itself, often requiring the military support of nation states (internal or external) to impose market reforms.[2] Furthermore, neoliberalism often failed to find sufficient markets for continued growth, requiring nation states to create them, through further privatisation or disaster.[3]

Most significantly, the freeing of markets did not deliver equilibrium and stability. Instead, it led to unprecedented levels of wealth inequality and financial crises. While it initially appeared that neoliberalism was to survive these events, it became increasingly clear that it cannot provide solutions to the problems it had wrought, nor the increasingly pertinent climate emergency. Consequent demands for change among populations has in many places re-energised the left, and in turn triggered waves of reactionary populism.

Yet what change is to come? Despite ideas forming around post-capitalist sharing economies,[4] and ‘fully automated luxury communism’[5], there is yet to be a serious challenge to capitalism. Stiglitz calls for a more compromising ‘progressive capitalism’ that appears based on a return to Keynesian economics. Meanwhile, capitalism has been slowly reshaping itself as an altogether different beast, and the evidence for this can be seen in the digital economy.

In 2013 computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier published a trenchant critique of the digital economy. ‘The primary business of digital networking’, he wrote, ‘has come to be the creation of ultra-secret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power’.[6]

At the heart of this process is ‘big data’, the immense gathering of user information which can be packaged and sold to companies seeking to gain insights into patterns of human behaviour. Through techniques such as ‘predictive analytics’, big data can be used to establish new categories for social groups and new ways of anticipating (and influencing) social change.

As Lanier notes, this has ocassioned the rise of monopolies in the digital economy, led by those that can harvest the most data. Yet there is something more fundamental at play here that Shoshana Zuboff’s (2018) writing on surveillance capitalism brings to light: big data carries an implicit logic and this signals an historic shift in capitalist ideology.[7]

Neoliberalism was founded on Hayek’s arguments which warned that all attempts to manage markets were not just impossible but immoral, as they would inevitably lead to invasive levels of surveillance and control as states desperately attempted to predict and manage human behaviour.

Yet this is precisely what we are seeing transpire in the digital economy. Surveillance capitalism, in Zuboff’s words, seeks to ‘textualise’ the market: to make it transparent and knowable in new ways via increasingly extensive recording. This implies that human behaviour is ultimately knowable, and that as a consequence markets and populations are manageable. Each day that passes, an algorithm is once more heralded as the key that can turn big data into revelatory truth.

Reinvigorated by the possibilities of big data, capitalism no longer prescribes industries that react and respond to markets, but industries which manage markets through supervising and predicting human behaviour.

This considerable change in logic may have a profound impact on politics. Neoliberalism championed a moral code of individual freedom (or ‘social liberalism’) compatible with its programs of privatisation and deregulation (‘economic liberalism’), while devastating projects for collective empowerment both economically and ideologically. This underpinned its strong alignment with liberal political parties of the ‘centre-right’ and ‘centre-left’.

Surveillance capitalism requires the increasing digitisation of everyday life, which both states and private enterprise can facilitate. Yet there is no discernible morality which would align it to liberal politics. The re-emerging spectre of authoritarianism makes for just as likely a bedfellow.[8]

Neoliberalism may be dead, and this is of course cause for celebration on the left after decades of decline in public ownership and social welfare. But as authoritarian regimes begin to demonstrate a successful alignment with the logic of surveillance capitalism,[9] neoliberalism remains the ghost at the feast, warning against the dangers of totalitarianism.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/may/30/neoliberalism-must-be-pronouced-dead-and-buried-where-next

[2] For a discussion on the military imposition of neoliberal reforms, see Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press

[3] As Naomi Klein has shown, both ecological and political disasters have been a great source of opportunity for those seeking to restructure economies around neoliberal principles. Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine. London: Penguin

[4] Mason, P. (2015) Post-Capitalism. London: Penguin Random House

[5] Aaron Bastani’s (2018) book sets out a vision for this alternative economy, but the basis for this model is more rigorously theorised in Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future. London: Verso

[6] Lanier, J. (2014) Who Owns the Future? London: Penguin.

[7] Zuboff, S. (2018) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. London: Profile

[8] For more optimistic analyses of possible alignments between digitally-managed economies and socialism, see Phillips, L. and Rozworksi, M. (2019) People’s Republic of Walmart. London: Verso

[9] See for example, the current strategy for ‘cyber sovereignty’ in China: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n19/john-lanchester/document-number-nine

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