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Abstract

The following editorial introduces the special issue (SI) on “Work, Environment and Planetary-scale Computation in Political-Economic Evolution”. Here, however, we go beyond an outline of what each contribution to the SI addresses, and attempt to draw a more pronounced shared embedding of the arguments that have come to the fore. The original idea of this SI was to synthesize a range of contemporary global political-economic challenges, i.e. (1) technology (esp. digital transformation), (2) nature (esp. ecological crisis) and (3) work (esp. precarization via the evolving platform economy). The main argument developed in this editorial reflection focuses on the common ground and origin of those processes found in the complex evolution of capitalist development. We frame the latter by assigning it a new term, i.e. “planetary carambolage”.
ORIGINAL PAPER
Planetary carambolage: The evolutionary political
economy of technology, nature and work
Katarzyna Gruszka
1
&Manuel Scholz-Wäckerle
2
&Ernest Aigner
3
Accepted: 16 November 2020 /Published online: 27 November 2020
Abstract
The following editorial introduces the special issue (SI) on Work, Environment and
Planetary-scale Computation in Political-Economic Evolution. Here, however, we go
beyond an outline of what each contribution to the SI addresses, and attempt to draw a
more pronounced shared embedding of the arguments that have come to the fore. The
original idea of this SI was to synthesize a range of contemporary global political-
economic challenges, i.e. (1) technology (esp. digital transformation), (2) nature (esp.
ecological crisis) and (3) work (esp. precarization via the evolving platform economy).
The main argument developed in this editorial reflection focuses on the common
ground and origin of those processes found in the complex evolution of capitalist
development. We frame the latter by assigning it a new term, i.e. planetary
carambolage.
Keywords Political economy.Complexity.Evolution .Capitalist development .
Ecological crisis .Digital transformation .Platform work
JEL codes B51 .B52 .J81 .O33 .P11 .P16 .P18 .Q57
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
https://doi.org/10.1007/s43253-020-00030-3
*Manuel Scholz-Wäckerle
manuel.scholzwaeckerle@wu.ac.at
Katarzyna Gruszka
katarzyna.gruszka@wu.ac.at
Ernest Aigner
ernest.aigner@wu.ac.at
1
Institute for Ecological Economics, Department of Socioeconomics, Vienna University of
Economics and Business, Wien, Austria
2
Department of Socioeconomics, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Wien, Austria
3
Institute for Economic Geography and GIScience, Department of Socioeconomics, Vienna
University of Economics and Business, Wien, Austria
#The Author(s) 2020, corrected publication 2020
1 Introduction
This editorial introduces the special issue (SI) on Work, Environment and Planetary-scale
Computation in Political-Economic Evolution. In this SI of the Review of Evolutionary
Political Economy (REPE), we ask questions about the current state of capitalism and its
potential of endogenous transformation to disrupt the phase of what we refer to as planetary
carambolage. The call asked for evolutionary political economic approaches synthesizing
problems around the automation of production and exchange, the future of work and the
implications for the environment. In addition to the summary of the contributions to the SI,
this article argues that there is a common ground in the origin of the three crucial
contemporary global political economic challenges, more specifically, the challenges of
(1) digital transformation, (2) ecological crisis and (3) the precarization of work via the
evolving platform economy. This common ground, we argue, is located in the complex
evolution of capitalism, its development, the understanding of which can be supported with
the concept of planetary carambolage.
The SI begins with Hanappi (2020) explaining the role of relatively stable config-
urations in evolving complex systemsfor the evolution of political economy in the
human species. Complexity and evolutionary theory indicate that capitalist develop-
ment is not a continuous process of growth. Rather, it can be seen as development
which is regularly disrupted by discrete moments of change. These discrete moments
depend on novel qualities of the political economy. The emergence of novel qualities
capable to transform the system into a new stable configurationis shaped by group-
level processes, group communication structures and practices. This view complements
the contributions by Foley (2020a,b), exploring socialist alternatives to capitalist
development from a historical perspective. Foley (2020b) discusses the digitalization
as a potential source of transforming capitalism through decentralized and self-
organized planning and production processes. Schröter (2020) delves deeper into this
question by emphasising the notion of imaginary economyfrom a media science
perspective. The article explains how such an imaginary—“a collectively held system
of more or less vague or detailed ideas, what an economy is, how it works, and how it
should be(ibid.)contributes to stabilising an economy and how it translates into the
transformation of an economy.
While these contributions focus on the long-run perspectives of capitalist develop-
ment, two more articles in this SI emphasize the short and medium run. Bertani et al.
(2020) elaborate on the short- and medium-run effects of the digital transformation on
productivity and employment, in an agent-based macroeconomic modelling frame-
work. Still, it is not evident how the rapidly growing energy and resource demand of
planetary-scale computation
1
can be provided in a sustainable way, in terms of social
1
Planetary-scale computationis a term used by Bratton (2015) to address the geopolitical, international,
political-economic dimension of the production, exchange and use of information and communication
technology. Planetary-scale computation takes different forms at different scalesenergy and mineral
sourcing and grids; subterranean cloud infrastructure; urban software and public service privatisation; massive
universal addressing systems; interfaces drawn by the augmentation of the hand, of the eye, or dissolved into
objects; users both over-outlined by self-quantification and also exploded by the arrival of legions of sensors,
algorithms, and robots. Instead of seeing all of these as a hodgepodge of different species of computing,
spinning out on their own at different scales and tempos, we should see them as forming a coherent and
interdependent whole.(ibid., pp. 45)
274 Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
cohesion and climate justice. Many consider decoupling economic growth from green-
house gas emissions via a transition towards renewable energy supply as the solution to
the problem, although this remains empirically questionable (Haberl et al. 2020). The
contribution by Bettin (2020) sheds light on that transition by revisiting and amending
the evolutionary economic theory of innovation systems.
In what follows, we first introduce the concept of planetary carambolage in
Section 2to unravel the complexity and evolution of capitalist development that has
led to a collision of exploitation processes across several domains on planetary scale.
Section 3synthesizes the contributions to the SI along planetary carambolage and
discusses the endogenous nature of recurring, interdependent and cumulating crises in
capitalist development. In Section 4, we first discuss the platform economy as a new
political-economic configuration that relies on planetary-scale computation to coordi-
nate a highly specialized global system of value chains depending on resource- and
energy-intensive labor exploitation. In Section 5, we contrast the potential of capitalism
to stabilize the current regime of accumulation with its potential to transform itself into
a novel political-economic configuration. We conclude with arguing that capitalisms
innate forces of self-transformation allow for speculation about future crises and more
stable forms of configurations beyond capitalism.
2 Planetary carambolage
The current stage of capitalist development can be interpreted in terms of a steady
process of a crashing world that does not abruptly destroy, but sets everything in a slow
and steady collision, and that may tip over into catastrophes. This collision of exploi-
tation processes on planetary scale is what we call planetary carambolage, a perspective
that reveals a world of slow degradation and multiple crises that, on its surface, does not
look very harmful. Increasing frequency of natural disasters (IPCC 2012), of ecological
catastrophes such as biodiversity loss (Butchart et al. 2010), the high number of
environmental conflicts (Scheidel et al. 2020) and accelerating exploitation in the
context of platform economies are mere symptoms of a global process that is driven
by increasing inequalities in political-economic power. Conceptual contributions that
emphasize and analyze dynamics of, e.g. monopoly capitalism (Baran and Sweezy
1977) or surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2019), the expulsion and stabilization of
reserve armies (Sassen 2014), and the dominance of fossil fuel corporations
2
in
financial and real economics (Foster 2013) all help to identify driving forces and
decisive agents in guiding processes of capital accumulation and the related complex
evolution of contemporary capitalism.
Set in relation to the pace of changes in the whole human history, the current world
economy is changing drastically. Capital accumulation processes transform the social,
aesthetic, political spheres at similar magnitudes as the spatial, environmental and
technological. Those changes are happening simultaneously on multiple levels, thus
entering the particular level of the subjective self as well as macroscopic levels of
spatial development or the planetary biosphere. The human economic code structures
2
2019 top 10 largest companies worldwide by revenue (*oil and gas): Walmart, Sinopec Group*, State Grid,
China National Petroleum*, Royal Dutch Shell*, Saudi Aramco*, Volkswagen, BP, Amazon, Toyota.
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293 275
bits and pieces of all planetary matter and energy, in a seemingly continuous process of
reproduction. Still, we know from the world history of capitalist development that the
social and economic reproduction is at large not continuous but finds itself always
disrupted at the peak of financial expansion (Arrighi and Moore 2001). The financial
expansion of the last 4050 years was very much shaped by pension fund capitalism
and the most recent return of state finance capitalism with post-2008 quantitative easing
programs (Toporowski 2020). When we ask ourselves about the capitalist enterprises
with the highest market capitalization of today, we will find tech companies that have
made their gains on behalf of the digital transformation, in particular on behalf of the
evolution of the platform economy.
3
Their actual source of surplus is given by an extended mode of labor exploitation that can
be associated with dividuation (Deleuze 1992; Lazaratto 2014). In general, the labor process
generates the individuals it needs most for the current social division of labor (Lazaratto
2014, p. 24). However, the digital transformation has led to an ever more automated
production with highly specialized global value chains as well as an exchange system
workingwithpersonalizedads.Onalargerscale, the labor process has started to generate
dividuatedworkers who are, thus, no longer instituted as an individuated subject,
economic subject(human capital, entrepreneur of the self), or citizen’” (ibid., p. 25) but
as dividuals. This process involves a fragmentation of the single individual worker who is
employed in multiple jobs in parallel. This is different to the former more industrial
fragmentation of the whole working class into specialized workers. The process of
dividuation (i.e. the fragmentation or parallelization of individual labor) gets enforced by
the increasing algorithmic governance of production and exchange systems. The labor
process no longer focusses on the supply of individualized labor power, but just on a
multiplicity of atomized tasks that are then matched with agents.
4
Reaching this stage of capitalist development was very capital-intensive over the last
4050 years in terms of machinery but also of software. One of the central questions of
planetary carambolage is about the energy source of this capitalist development. In
general, this machinery is fueled at large extent by fossil fuels ever since the owners of
the means of production in industrial capitalism discovered the advantage of place- and
time-independent concentrated forms of energy. The remaining dependence on such
forms of energy reveals their advantage compared to renewable, fluctuating and place-
specific energy forms. Crucially, this imbalanceis not necessarily related to the
higher degree of energy efficiency or technological superiority of the combustion
engine. What lead to the adoption of fossil fuels to drive capital accumulation is their
advantage in gaining control of an otherwise dispersed labor force whose work depends
on fluctuations in available energy (Malm 2013). Until today, the transformation
towards renewable and thus sustainable energy forms faces the grand challenge of
meeting the time and place-specific energy demand, under the principles that guide the
evolution and complexity of capitalism (ibid.).
The Marxian concept of social-ecological metabolism provides a common ground
for the analysis of the planetary carambolage because it connects the three global
3
2020 top 5 capitalized US companies in chronological order: Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet,
Facebook
4
See also Eversberg (2014) for this evolution of the labor market, with an empirical investigation of the
German labor market.
276 Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
contemporary challenges we highlight, i.e. technology, nature and work. The concept
regards labor process as the main driver of mediation between social and ecological
values, i.e. the social-ecological metabolism (Fischer-Kowalski 1998;Foster1999).
Running through many variants in the evolution of humankind, the contemporary
social-ecological metabolism becomes a threat to the planet and life through capitalist
development (Steffen et al. 2011). As Marx explained, labor is primarily a process of
mediation, regulation and control of the metabolism between humans, their actions and
nature (Marx 1992, p. 283). The current stage of capitalist development depends on
maintenance of place-independent, highly concentrated forms of energy that ensure the
stabilization of current capital accumulation. Moreover, it subverts and cleaves the
metabolic relations of society and nature through the generation of isolated, dividuated
and therefore polarized worker subjectivities. Concurrently, the platform economy has
emerged as the main coordinator of a dividuated subjectivity, structuring lives of
platform-mediated workers, as we outline in Section 4.However,beforewearrive
there, we take a deeper look into the contributions to this SI and what they might reveal
about planetary carambolage.
3 Summary and editorial reflections I: formation of the planetary
carambolage
In the following section, we discuss each contribution to the SI as highlighting
different aspects of complex and evolutionary unfolding of global development.
We start with outlining the role of transpersonal communication, hegemony and
stability of capitalism. Next, we discuss the importance of conceptualising
economic development as complex adaptive systems that evolve in interdepen-
dence with technological change. Furthermore, we give indications that such
systems are best analysed with agent-based modelling approaches that provide
significant insights in the future of capitalism in the context of digitalization.
Congruently, these developments occur in a world of changing energy and
material resources, where particularly evolutionary political economy theory
can make significant contributions.
Human species is distinct from other species because it is capable of transpersonal
communication. It can write and share its own history by using different media. The
simplest forms of such media are objects, artefacts or tools, pieces of technology
(Hornborg 2016). A simple tool carries a story, an instruction, an institutional code, a
set of information or simply some kind of use value through the way how the original
matter is transformed into this object. It is the combination of the chosen material and
the emergent design that makes it sensible and comprehensive for other humans who
have not been original members of the crafting group.
In other words, the human species has been bound to use a shared language to
become an enduring social entity. It is the exchange of perception filters, in the
communicative capacity of tribes of human individuals, which enables and
constitutes individual consciousness. The existence of this second mirror is built
on the primacy of the group.
Hanappi (2020)
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293 277
Human societies are evolving and complex because they communicate in transpersonal
terms via shared languages (Dopfer 2004; Richerson and Boyd 2010). Use values are
pivotal to the evolution of societies since they expand the communicative capacity over
time and space, thereby enabling humans to become an enduring social entity(ibid.).
However, use values are also pivotal to the complexity of societies because individual
agents never process use values identically; i.e., they are heterogeneous agents and
members of diverse groups (within a larger population), with their own internal models
(i.e. habits, norms, customs, traditions, social relations of production). These charac-
teristic interpretations of use values are only relatively stable over space and time since
complex systems are alien to states of static equilibria. Hanappi (2020)refersinthat
context to the primacy of the groupwhich becomes effective through the use of a
shared language and communication and through the emergence of communities. The
cohesive development of a community may stabilize a specific configuration of use
values and their transpersonal diffusion, thereby building up hegemony.
The significant question for any kind of evolutionary political economy is about the
relative stability of that hegemony in space and time. Hegemony establishes a discur-
sive field of power that programs institutions in the interest of the hegemon, with
effects for the real economy.
5
Hanappi (2020) explains that through building up
hegemony, a specific discursive mode of communication allows groups and commu-
nities to shape their future and the future of others in real terms. Obviously, this has
significant effects for the evolution of a political-economic system, foremost for its
economic structure and organization. However, this chain of causation may simulta-
neously run the other direction once the economic sphere invokes changes in the
political discursive layer. This circumstance makes the political economy essentially
evolving, complex and path-dependent, for it can never reproduce itself through perfect
circular copies (Prigogine and Stengers 1997; Georgescu-Roegen 1971). This clarifies
that standard economic theorybuilding primarily upon methodological individualism
and the general equilibrium frameworkis of limited value in explaining long-run
complex, developmental and evolutionary processes such as capitalist development and
its future transformations. It is certainly a research field where an interdisciplinary
evolutionary political economy approach can make significant contributions (see
Hanappi and Scholz-Wäckerle 2017).
The complex evolving interplay between the political sphere of group communica-
tion and hegemony and the economic sphere of organizations and institutions of
production and exchange highlights that capitalist development does not follow simple
top-down causal mechanisms. Rather, it is a diverse, non-linear and multidimensional
process. Parts of the heterodox economic tradition have always discussed the transfor-
mation of capitalism (Jo et al. 2018, part V). Especially for the Marxian approach,
capitalist development has played a major role. However, there have been substantial
developments in Marxian theory within the last decades, allowing for a more nuanced
understanding of capitalist development and its endogenous transformation (see also
Brennan et al. 2017). The significant role of complexity and evolutionary theory is
further elaborated in Foleys contributions (2020a/b) to this SI.
5
A good example of the late twentieth century is given by the neoliberal hegemony of the Washington
consensus and the institutional programming of development policy by the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund in these days (see, e.g. Fine 2001, part III).
278 Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
This bottom-up vision of social organization resonates with important political
currents of the late twentieth century. The New Leftmovements of the 1960s
rebelled against the centralizing and regimenting tendencies of Old Leftsocial-
ism and communism by calling for decentralization, participation, and the polit-
ical primacy of individual freedom and expression. The Left, such as it is in the
contemporary world of globalized capitalism, is much more attracted to the vision
of spontaneous political expression than to the unpleasant chore of organizing
political and economic institutions.
Foley (2020b)
Foley (2020b) argues that the idea of self-organizations in complex (adaptive) systems,
and especially its bottom-up vision, has transformed the Marxian approach to critical
political economy. In his two companion essays, Foley (2020a,b)developssocialist
alternatives to capitalismalong a close reading of antagonistic authors such as Marx
and Hayek. Where Foley considers Hayek an important turning point in our concep-
tualization of social life, leading to regarding human societies as complex, adaptive
systems(Foley 2020a), Hanappi (2020) would rather refer to authors such as John von
Neumann and Erwin Schrödinger in that perspective, who have focused a great deal of
their work on complexity theory. Both, Foley and Hanappi, develop a strong Neo-
Marxian understanding of endogenous transformation processes shaped by complexity
and evolution.
6
Furthermore, properties of complex adaptive systems such as emergence, cumula-
tive causation, irreversibility or path-dependency ask for an intentional and interactive
theory of agent behavior and decision-making (Elsner 2017). Agents in evolutionary
political economy models are able to self-organize, communicate and regulate them-
selves via institutional coordination and structuration. Such models synthesize the
political with the economic via group-level processes on meso-scale (see Dopfer
et al. 2004;ElsnerandHeinrich2009;Scholz-Wäckerle2017). In agent-based models,
the emphasis shifts from the general equilibrium approach of standard economic theory
to the relative stability of political-economic configurations of evolutionary political
economy. In this SI, we feature an agent-based macroeconomic model used for
investigating the dynamics of the digital transformation.
7
Bertani et al. (2020) focus on the economic effects of automation as the third
morphing [of digital revolution] is bringing intelligent machines,
8
especially on
employment and productivity. With reference to Arthur (2009), the authors argue that
it is not just the accelerating diffusion of intangible digital technologiesthat is
disrupting and transforming the current political-economic configuration. They also
stress the role of synergistic effects between novel digital technologies, e.g. between
automation processes in production and big data-driven machine learning in marketing
departments. The empirical part of their study illustrates correlations between intangi-
ble investments and labor as well as capital productivity. Data indicates generally that
6
See Wilson (2016) for a contemporary reading about the complementarity of complexity and evolution in
multi-level selection processes.
7
Agent-based macroeconomic models have received increasing attention in the recent literature. Compare for
instance a recently published special issue edited by Dosi and Roventini (2019), also featuring a macro ABM
with endogenous social class dynamics as discussed previously (Rengs and Scholz-Wäckerle 2019).
8
Brackets added by the authors.
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293 279
capital productivity, measured as the ratio between GDP and capital services has been
decreasing in most OECD countries for the past twenty years(Bertani et al. 2020).
However, the authors find significant correlation between the growth in intangible
investment and total factor productivity growth, especially for the years 20082014.
The crucial question for their model is about the drop of labor demand in consumer
good producing firms and the potential increase in intangible digital asset developer
firms that could compensate the technological unemployment in the long run. The
authors posit that the absorptive capacity of labor through the latter compensation
mechanism (via digital developer firms) depends substantially on the rate of innovation,
the success in research and development. A higher rate of innovation translates directly
into higher unemployment rates since the labor market cannot transform quickly
enough. Therefore, the model delivers new insights on the transformation of amass
production economy to a digital service one(Bertani et al. 2020), elsewhere called
platform capitalism(Srnicek 2017). Furthermore, resonating with the core question
of evolutionary political economy, the model emphasizes the role of the pace of
structural change in capitalism.
The production of ever more digital intangible assets may come at different speeds,
leading to different hypotheses about structural change. Altogether, it also invites
speculation and development of utopian visions around bottom-up aspects of peer
production, as envisioned in the idea of Lifenetby Foley (2020b), or the idea of
open source and the commons for collaborative infrastructures of degrowth (Likavčan
and Scholz-Wäckerle 2018), or, in general, in the post-capitalist visions of Asociety
after money(Aigner and Scholz-Wäckerle 2019). These latter streams of thought
share the development of imaginaries, as Schröter (2020) elaborates in his article for
this SI. The author differentiates between the technical and the social imaginary from
the perspective of media science:
Whatever one may think of this concept [ex ante mediation of production quota]:
It is a social imaginary, the idea of a (supposedly) possible and desirable other
social form. In contrast, a technical imaginary is the idea of a (supposedly) soon
possible, world-changing technology.
Schröter (2020)
9
Where Bertani et al. (2020) focus on the economic implications of a technical imag-
inary, Foley (2020b) and Schröter (2020) aim to build bridges to the social imaginary.
This discussion goes beyond the question of what is technologically possible/feasi-
ble?but addresses particularly the question of what kind of society can we even
imagine?Schröter (2020) discusses the 3D printer as a representative case for a typical
technical imaginary. The 3D printer opens a variety of imaginaries, since production
can be performed on site and requires no centralized production facility. As outlined by
the author, the 3D printer often acts as a signifier for a more potent manufacturing
machine that could also assemble far more complex objects, or basically just every-
thing. Schröter (2020) points out that an imaginary economy depends on the co-
evolution of a technical and a social imaginary. Expressed through the lens of media
science and the crucial aspect of social mediation, he highlights why the 3D printer
9
Parenthesis added by the authors.
280 Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
could be a problematictechnical imaginary for capitalism and why it inevitably
directs towards a post-capitalist utopia. Schröter (2020), by following Marx, argues that
capitalist production (on behalf of separate private production)reliesonex post
mediation between the producers.
10
The most famous antithesis to capitalism (i.e.
socialism) builds correspondingly on ex ante mediation, resting on a social imaginary
where production quota are determined in social terms
11
before the production even
begins. However, this imaginary faces other difficulties associated with coordination
problems in society and the to-be-negotiated rule systems for the ex-ante mediation
process. That is why Schröter (2020) presents the case of the 3D printer as a separate
antithesis to capitalism in addition to socialism, where the printer acts as an ideal
fabrication machinefor omnipotent production. This framing comes with a liber-
tarian flavor because it is still individual, but no longer merely partial. The central
advantage of a social imaginary is that it does not depend on ex-ante mediation because
all production is still individual.
Apparently by itself and without the efforts of political enlightenment, discussion,
struggle, and even the reshaping of subjectivity, a machine of this kind could
overcome the existing form of society. This technical imaginary might be the
central reason for the popularity of the 3D print post-capitalism utopia.
Schröter (2020)
Can a new technology alone invoke major transformations? No, certainly not. Of
course, technology enforces group communication, cooperation and mediation pro-
cesses; it shapes the agentsinternal models, their values and norms. It may
(de)stabilize the group identity and the power of communities in that spirit. But
technological change necessitates social (institutional) change and vice versa, as it is
acknowledged within heterodox economic research, see, e.g. Bush (1987) or Perez
(2010). Technological innovation itself demands systematic integration into other
societal sub-systems, in order to sustain novel techno-economic paradigms (Perez
2010) as stable configurations. That is also why evolutionary economic analysis of
innovation has been rooted in a complex system perspective from its onset. Bettin
(2020) demonstrates in this SI how an amended technological innovation system
approach can be used to implement parts of the next phase of energy transition,with
a particular focus on electricity infrastructure powered by renewable energies. Today,
capitalism faces the challenge of a next phase of energy transition to address ecological
crisis. Ecological economists have argued for a long time for better synthesis of society-
nature relations in political-economic analysis (see Spash 2017). This theoretical
development represents an essential process since the corridor of maneuvering out of
the ecological crisis is already very narrow and a paradigmatic change is in desperate
need.
Bettin (2020) points in this direction by making comprehensive recommendations
for an amended innovation system approach. He discusses the realm of energy transi-
tions from the perspective of electricity infrastructures for renewable energies. One of
10
Individual persons or individual companies produce and then see if they can sell their goods on the
market(ibid.)
11
i.e. ultimately (somehow) communicatively coordinated production(ibid.)
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293 281
the central starting points on energy usage and transition is concerned with the material
foundations of energy, the infrastructure and its physical presence on the planet. Fossil
energy usually comes with a centrally organized infrastructure and electricity net,
whereas renewable energies demand a decentralized organized infrastructure and
corresponding electricity nets. However, such infrastructure requires flexible
solutions, such as, e.g. energy storages. Bettin (2020) highlights that an innovation
system approach for renewable energy infrastructure needs to be evolutionary, because
it relies on concepts such as historicity, irreversibility, path-dependence and contingen-
cy. Concepts are crucial for understanding evolution and complexity in political
economy. Innovation systems are developing historically and spatially over many
decades, sometimes hundreds of years. Their longevity depends more on the planning
horizon of the national economy than on the market mechanism, as the author outlines
with reference to List (1841).
12
That is why Bettin (2020) suggests transforming the
current energy system to a multi-level perspective
13
on the scale of policy. Radical
changes need niches to prosper.
For example, Schumpeterian patterns can be observed, where new firms with new
technologies compete with incumbent ones. Conversely, substitution within
sustainable socio-technical also transition happens through other channels: e.g.,
outsiders such as activists, and other citizens develop and deploy technologies
based on normative rationales.
Bettin (2020)
This is one particular niche of change where the continuities may get disrupted
by discrete shifts in the evolution of political economy, where the technical
imaginary may also gain social momentum, leading to something novel. Bettin
(2020) lays out a clear recipe for amending the components of the technological
innovation system approach, to make the energy transformation to a low-carbon
society successful. The framework builds on the following amendments to the
technological innovation system (TIS) framework and picks up several ideas
from research in evolutionary political economy and ecological economics: (1)
Inclusion of physical-structure/ nature as a fifth element of TIS, next to actors,
networks, institutions, and technologies. (2) Capturing complex diffusion dynam-
ics in markets in TIS by including social acceptance. (3) Incorporating the wider
political economy of power relations and capitalism in TIS(Bettin 2020, pp.
2427).
The contributions discussed above highlight the interdependence of communication,
complexity, technology and social-ecological metabolism in the evolution of contem-
porary capitalism. These focus on recent developments in automation and the energy
sources of the accumulation process. In the following, we discuss one new configura-
tion and relocate the evolution of political economy in the context of one of its main
drivers: the labor process.
12
Compare evolutionary institutionalist approaches to the question how different species of institutions and
corporations shape the course of national economic development, e.g. Galbraith(1967) and Gruchy (1973).
13
Compare Geels (2002) for the original multi-level perspective and Foxon (2011) for a co-evolutionary
approach.
282 Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
4 Summary and editorial reflections II: platform-mediated work
as a locus of clashes
Conceptualized in simple, dry, uninformed and de-contextualized manner, platforms
are too often seen as providers of socio-technical infrastructures and digital market
organizers. They are said to facilitate digitally mediated interactions between buyers
and sellers of goods and services in various economy domains, usually relying on an
indirect employment or contract relation with the latter (Kenney and Zysman 2016;
Kirchner and Schüßler 2019). Platform capitalism literature extends that (see, e.g.
Langley and Leyshon 2017, Montalban et al. 2019, Srnicek 2017) and places platforms
among actors within a capitalist mode of productionthirsty for profit, new markets,
new commodities and new means of exploitation(Srnicek 2017, p. 3), building on
network effects towards monopolization (Pagano 2014). As intermediators of market
encounters in digital space (Çalişkan and Callon 2010), platforms simultaneously
coordinate multi-sided connections and the effects thereof (Langley and Leyshon
2017; van Dijck et al. 2018). As actors in processes of capitalization, platform business
models heavily rely on venture capital and strengthen the premise of leveraging debt
against future revenue prospects from digital economic circulation(Langley and
Leyshon 2017,p.13),becomingrentiers of the network(ODwyer 2015,p.234).
Through the intense datafication and commodification mechanisms, platforms ultimate-
ly blur a range of boundaries: for example, between for- and non-profit, free and paid
for, private and public (van Dijck et al. 2018). Finally, they fuzz various distinctions
pertinent to the employment relationships (Mair and Reischauer 2017; Srnicek 2017;
Wood et al. 2018), redefining who is seen as an employee and who as a worker
(Vercellone 2007).
Which brings us to the pivotal role of platforms in the ongoing multi-faceted
processes of reshaping of labor. Attempts of understanding platform-mediated work
are proliferating, building a body of heterogeneous contributions that differ in terms of
defining the scope of platform-mediated work. Digital labor, for example, is a term that
has been often used by critical algorithm and media scholars (Duffy and Schwartz
2018; Gillespie 2010,2015,2017;Kelkar2018; Ruckenstein and Turunen 2019).
These denote an understanding akin to a cognitive capitalist reading, where platforms
are the center stage for extending the spheres of surplus value extraction to everyday
leisure activities (Scholz 2012; Terranova 2000). The term digital labor has also been
used to refer, e.g. solely to work arrangements which are transacted and delivered
online via the platform (Bergvall-Kåreborn and Howcroft 2014;Huws2014;Irani
2015), and contrasted with remotely delivered gig work (Healy et al. 2020; Kässi and
Lehdonvirta 2016; de Ruyter and Brown 2019;Woodetal.2019). Those seemingly
distant takes on only one term used in regard to platform-mediated work show how
platforms render the problem of labor as at once a commodity and a lived experience
(van Doorn 2017, p. 899), ultimately bringing us back to the problem of social
subjection.
The following remarks on platform-mediated work pertain to digitally mediated
service work, rather than work performed on social media platforms, commercial retail
platforms or common-based peer production sites. As such, we consider in particular
income-generating work performed by (private) individualsthe on-demand
workforceand draw the scope of the phenomenon as (a) location-based (offline)
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293 283
and web-based (online) platform-mediated work, both types provided by (b) individ-
uals and the crowd (Schmidt 2017). Though still elusive in numbers, platform-mediated
work has been estimated to grow at an annual rate of 26% (Kässi and Lehdonvirta
2016), catering for 13% of all paid work in advanced economies (Healy et al. 2020;
Schwellnus et al. 2019), with 70 million workers registered on platforms facilitating
only location-based work (Heeks 2017).
Within this heterogeneity of forms that platform-mediated work can take, certain
commonalities can be identified, which are crucial for a more practical-groundingof
the discussion of the contemporary evolution(s) of capitalism(s) in this SI. These
overarching issues include, first, flexibilization and individualization of work, rooted
in governance of platforms (Gorwa 2019; Montalban et al. 2019) and referring to, but
not limited to, the employment question. And, second, the complex practices of
algorithmic management and control, or the governance by platforms (ibid.), mani-
fested, e.g. in platform review and rating systems, worker online profiles and various
tools of controlling user behavior, which we ultimately link to the issues of appearance,
invisibility and user power. Both areas are integral to platform datafication and
commodification processes.
Many platform-based companies reshuffle the boundaries between (full) employ-
ment and casual or gig labor, highlighting the spatially unfixed character of platform-
mediated work and its ability to seemingly transcend the local labor markets (Graham
et al. 2017a,b), or to simply notoriously misclassify workers. This has been discussed
in a range of narratives: from the benefits of flexible work arrangements, e.g. in terms
of work schedules (Chen 2018;Huwsetal.2017; Sundararajan 2016), through
bridging flexibilization with precarization of work (Aroles et al. 2019; Richardson
2015;Scholz2016). The narrative of revamped outsourcing has also been present
(Callaway 2016; Risak and Lutz 2017; van Doorn 2017), of the deepening of the
individuality and fragmentation of work, and a radical responsibilization of the work-
force (Cherry 2016; Fleming 2017;Rogers2015). The question of individualization
comes back in face of high specializations of work tasks and standardization of goods
and services as another characteristic of platform-mediated work (Frenken and Schor
2017; Langley and Leyshon 2017). The high specialization and standardization stabi-
lize the expectations of the users and are, therefore, central to the pricing process.
In a regulationist reading, flexibilization of the wage-labor nexus, outsourcing and
individualization are the key neoliberal trends boosted by platforms (Montalban et al.
2019), ultimately contributing to further disempowerment of the platform workers.
Collective organization of platform workers is mostly addressed and rather critically
assessed within web-based crowd work (Gegenhuber et al. 2018; Graham and
Wood co ck 2018). Here, flexibility of platform-mediated work is also seen as a barrier
to effective worker organization, drawing attention to platforms as stagesfor foster-
ing freelancer and entrepreneurial identities (Wood et al. 2018). This platform-enabled
independencealso translates into low institutional visibility of big parts of on-
demand workforce, with many platform workers balancing on the thin line between
formality and informality of employment, and platforms often incentivising registration
of workers by themselves or by the clients, yet failing to supervise the execution thereof
(Ticona and Mateescu 2018;vanDoorn2017,2020). Platforms are therefore positioned
as mediators of dualization of labor markets, increasing the risks of exacerbating
existing inequalities (Greve 2019). As such, the be your own bossand make extra
284 Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
cash easyrhetoric might be valid for some platform workers. For others, especially
those who are, due to various grounds, already in precarious conditions, vulnerable and
unprotected, platform-mediated work might simultaneously be the last resort for getting
work and a dead end for decent work.
Our second area of interest in the ongoing platform-mediated transformation of labor
moves on to governance by platforms (Greve 2019;vanDijcketal.2018), more
commonly referred to as algorithmic governance/management/control. Just like other
modern organizations, platforms follow an institutional data imperative(Fourcade
and Healy 2017, p. 9). In the case of platforms, data is generated by their usersinputs,
and their activities, facilitated with a digital interface. These are subject to various
review, rating and scoring systems, which results in constant monitoring, tracking and
evaluation (Bratton 2015; Fourcade and Healy 2017; Langley and Leyshon 2017;
Pasquale 2015,2018). Algorithmic techniques of working with large volumes of
quantitative data have led to the emergence of a new regime of moralized social
classification fed by the twin process of big data-based valuation (of individuals)
and value extraction (from individuals)(Fourcade and Healy 2017,p.10),spanning
both material and symbolic dimensions, being both market-derived and market-
oriented.
Platform review and ratings systems, as well as online profiles of different users,
verification tools or measuring worker performance via other factors like the respon-
siveness rate in communication with potential clients, are strongly related to the
reduced transaction costs and the ways in which platforms facilitate trust building.
The efficacy of such reputation metrics is carefully designed and built into platform
infrastructures, and used as stimulants of high quality of services delivered via the
platform, but also as drivers of specific user behaviors, and ways-arounduncomfort-
able regulations (Marwick 2013; Rieder 2016;vanDijcketal.2018). For platform
workers, algorithmically controlled work means navigating through the digitalin a
skillful, informed manner, oftentimes based on scattered information, in order to cater
for their individual (online and offline) visibility (Gruszka and Böhm 2020; Ticona and
Mateescu 2018; van Doorn 2017). It is a situation of being stretched between surveil-
lance and self-regulation (Shapiro 2018;Woodetal.2019).
The plurality of the ways in which this process looks like for platform workers, and
how it is experienced by them, is astonishing, and is still under-conceptualized and
rather scattered (Cherry 2016;Irani2015; Ticona and Mateescu 2018). The existing
studies do show, however, that virtually every platform worker puts considerable effort
into a careful orchestration of their online selves”—be it a provider of the service off
or on the platform, be it a selected individual providing the service, or a crowdworker.
For example, Turkersmicro-working on AmazonsMechanicalTurk(AMT)are
seen by requesters as a string of numbers ID, with a range of performance stats on the
efficiency of their labor rendered on the basis of, e.g. their acceptance rate and time
needed for each task, and a consequent worker rating. The bodilessness of
crowdworkers is extensively explored by, e.g. Irani (2015)andCherry(2016), who
jointly see platform-specific design as a means of hiding platform workers (via, e.g.
online profiles, avatars, IDs), essentially begging the question whether it is individuals
or rather well-trained algorithms performing the tasks. Turkers might also boost their
score by completing educational trainings offered by AMT, or trick the system and, e.g.
manipulate the information provided on their geographical location in order to access
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293 285
better-paid tasks from requesters who exclude offers from Turkers in particular regions
of the world (Graham et al. 2017a,b;Woodetal.2019). Location-based individual
platform workers are in yet another context. Their efforts on reaching and maintaining a
high rating are quite complex and involve for example invisible work put into crafted
personal narratives in online profiles of platform care-workers, carefully selected
identity verification tools for workers in largely informal sectors, or Uber drivers
keeping their manners and spirits up during the rides and their cars tidy. However,
doing the job well, to put it simply, is not enough in many cases, since platforms offer
additional paid options for manipulating the transparency of those trust-enabling
mechanisms, which prioritize certain workers over others in the search results. Algo-
rithmic management and other platform-inherent worker control mechanisms, thus, are
often a competitive area in which workers both negotiate the engineering of their
visibility, agency, and income opportunities(van Doorn 2020,p.2).
A thus far most interesting discussion of the ways in which platforms affecting
labor and control the workforce is developed by Van Doorn (2017). Exploring
particularly the question of how platforms exacerbate the precarity of the most
vulnerable workers, three platform-specific mechanisms are identified: (i) bolster-
ing the immunity of platform intermediaries and clients, (ii) expanding managerial
control over workers and (iii) rendering the platform workforce as fungible and
superfluous. The two core areas problematized above in our discussion of platform-
mediated work resurface in each of the mechanisms and their intersectional dynam-
ics. The blurry (or flexible) employment relations guarantee a safe and protected
ground for platforms and the users on the demand side, since worker misclassifi-
cation practices and platform terms of service agreements in practice often eliminate
the obligations pertaining to an employment relationship, despite the occurrence of
employment situation. This occurrence necessarily includes the presence of control
over workers, which platforms exert through various (more or less opaque) tech-
niques of algorithmic management. Crucially, information asymmetries in, e.g.
platform review and rating systems or the different user-type-dependent verification
procedures, seem to be the normalfor platforms mediating work, further boosting
their immunity and this of the clients/requesters/bookers (van Doorn 2017). Thus,
the radicalization of worker responsibility contributes to the immunity of platforms
also through a direct link to the algorithmic tools employed for dictating the
conditions of an employment situation. Finally, the fungibility and superfluity of
workers are algorithmically managed in a way that creates an impression of an
almost inexhaustible pool of on-demand workforce, often within reach around the
globe. These data-driven techniques of socio-technical obfuscation essentially
conceal the workers from view, fueling the naïve narratives of their happy, inde-
pendent and flexible work life, and concealing the gendered, racialized, and
classed distribution of opportunities and vulnerabilities associated with [it](van
Doorn 2017, p. 898, see also 2020).
The control and power over the labor process have thus undergone substantial
shifts in the last decade. Platform-mediated forms of employment are proliferating
and will further commodify various spheres of life and labor. The precondition for
that has been set by slow processes of shifting exploitation from real subsumption to
the subsumption of the general intellectof the labor process, as discussed in the
concluding section.
286 Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
5 Back to the planetary carambolage: platforms, subsumption
and contemporary capitalism
The evolution of power relations has always been central for the analysis of capitalist
development, as we have already highlighted with reference to the interplay of the
political and the economic sphere and the aspect of group communication and hege-
mony. Capitalism has quite logically made its most significant transformations in those
periods when the power relations have changed on global scale. This was always the
case after a final financial expansion of the various accumulation cycles, as we have
already outlined with reference to Arrighi and Moore (2001). But it was not just the
shift in global power that is associated with major transformations, it is also the shift of
hegemony in the production process. As it was typical for classical political economy,
Marx (1992) also explored the transformation from merchant to industrial capitalism.
His analysis was unique and innovative, because he discussed this process along a
change in the subsumption of labor under capital and, more explicitly, in the corre-
sponding change of surplus value extraction. Following Marx, the extraction of
absolute surplus value requires a formal subsumption of labor under capital in the
mode of production, whereas relative surplus value is achieved from real subsumption.
The production of absolute surplus-value turns exclusively on the length of the
working day, whereas the production of relative surplus value completely revo-
lutionizes the technical processes of labor and the groupings into which society is
divided. It therefore requires a specifically capitalist mode of production, a mode
of production which, along with its methods, means and conditions, arises and
develops spontaneously on the basis of the formal subsumption of labor under
capital. This formal subsumption is then replaced by a real subsumption.
Marx 1992,p.645)
The latter emerges—“develops spontaneously”—through the metamorphosis from
merchant to industrial capitalism and accelerates capitalist expansion tremendously.
The development of ever more specialized large-scale industrial machinery and its use
in capitalist production processes fostered the (still ongoing) fragmentation of labor
processes into ever more tiny subroutines.
14
This has not just led to a loss of hegemony
for the working class, since their knowledge and skills became easier to substitute, in
comparison to the more universal craftsmen of merchant capitalism.
15
The new pro-
ductivity gains made through technological change enabled, on the one hand, to
upscale mass production and circulation of commodities as well capital and, on the
other hand, to make production ever more compartmentalized in fragmented subrou-
tines. It is the latter process that buries the hegemony of craftsmanship and accelerates
alienation.
This raises the question about the existence of a second major transformation in
capitalist development in context of planetary carambolage, based on the real
14
This is evident through the stagewise evolutionary development of this fragmentation of labor processes.
Starting with Taylorism and Fordism, eventually finding a new peak in platform-mediated work as we have
outlined.
15
Compare Vercellone (2007) and the role of knowledge and power in subsumption conflicts about
hegemony.
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293 287
subsumption of labor under capital. Scholars have brought forward the hypothesis of a
transition from industrial to cognitive capitalism(e.g. Vercellone 2007). This would
involve a novel subsumption of the general intellect, going back to an early hypoth-
esis developed already by Marx in the Grundrisse (Marx 1992, pp. 690712). The
general intellect is a metaphor for social knowledge broadly conceived, including
public education, skills, and technical expertise in the labor force. It is represented in
the development of fixed capital in production that would not have been possible
without a progressively increasing social and public knowledge base. Therefore, it is on
the one hand a product of the exploitation of workers in crafting ever better machinery
and on the other hand a potential source of social emancipation (Vercellone 2007).
Today, in the light of the platform economy, the subsumption of the general intellect
implies firstly the harvest of individually generated data,
16
sold to the advertisement
industry that is able to personalize and target ads in order to extract a novel source of
surplus. Secondly, the intensified precarization and flexibilization through platform
work allows the generation of additional surplus. Both processes can get further
associated with the rise of intellectual monopoly capitalism (Pagano 2014), which
could serve as another indicator to confirm this transition to cognitive capitalism.
Ver c ell o ne ( 2007) argues that this process also shows characteristics for a potential
social emancipation of the working class through open knowledge, the development of
the commons and the collective use of the general intellect. However, this point finds
also critique (see, e.g. Pitts 2017), because it may overestimate the potential of the
sublation of the law of labor value (resting on a productivist view), if not compensated
by a larger critical emancipatory process of social mediation as argued by Fuchs (2020)
and Schröter (2020).
Platform-mediated work, as shown in the previous section, provides a fertile area for
further understanding of not only the problem of labor as commodity and a lived
experience (van Doorn 2017), but rather the full integration of the political and
economic sphere. The emergent biopolitics of platforms simultaneously caters for what
platform-mediated work literature refers to as governance of and by platforms. These
mechanisms of control make a potential collective emancipation of the platform-
mediated working class not only difficult, but very unlikely in near future. The radical
responsibilization of the more and more flexible and individualized workforce and the
mechanisms of rendering platform workers superfluous and easily replaceable corre-
spond to the evolving labor exploitation. Platform algorithmic management and control
practices embody dividuation, where workers on the one hand engage in meticulous
crafting of self-narratives and digital appearancewith the available digital spaces and
tools, and, on the other hand, themselves and their work are subject to refined modes of
surveillance. As a result, the data-driven platform environmentis cohabited by
control, algorithmically boosted competition, fear, panic and burn-out, further chal-
lenging the ongoing transformations of labor, in particular workersvisibility, power
and existence.
Planetary carambolage shows that capitalist exploitation processes collide and
intermingle with each other on planetary scale. They are likely to tip over into
catastrophes, and, therefore, deserve close inspection. This article emphasizes the need
for an integrated and systematic approach in analysing the relations between
16
Possible only through the progressive development of a literate and digital-savvy public.
288 Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293
technology, nature and work. The contributions to this SI indicate how a transdisci-
plinary evolutionary political economy approach can contribute to more insight into the
variety and interdependence of problems emerging from the planetary carambolage.
The transdisciplinary project we have in mind is clearly committed to the search for a
new configuration that allows for an overall lower, more progressive, entropy level.
(Hanappi 2020). Such a new stable configuration depends on the way we reorganize
and coordinate the social-ecological metabolism with human work as its catalyst and
medium between society and nature.
Funding Open access funding provided by Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU).
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which
permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give
appropriate creditto the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the CreativeCommons licence, and
indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the
article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not
included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory
regulation or exceeds the permitted use, youwill need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.
To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy (2020) 1:273293 289
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