Overthrowing Our Tech Overlords

Today’s tech barons treat their users however they like and believe there is little we can do to stop them. A cloud rebellion could change things.

Kristian Glenn for Noema Magazine

Yanis Varoufakis is the former finance minister of Greece, politician and author. This piece is extracted from his book, “Technofeudalism,” and used with the permission of publishers Bodley Head in the UK and Melville House Publishing in the U.S. (2023).

It felt like hours before the artist finally appeared. Awaiting him onstage was a shiny, oversized, robotic-looking metal exoskeleton suspended by a long cable from the high ceiling of the art space — a converted former power station just outside of Sydney. I was among the audience in the dimly lit turbine room, increasingly captivated by the wafting soundtrack and mesmerized by the elegantly glistening machine.

The calendar read Aug. 19, 2000 — nearly four years before Mark Zuckerberg would launch Facebook, six years before the first tweet and only about two years after the first Google search. The internet was still in its Age of Innocence, and the dream of it as an open digital forum for, and governed by, sovereign participants was still alive.

At last, Stelarc, the artist, emerged. Once inside the exoskeleton, Stelarc would continue to be free to move his legs as he wished, but his arms would be controlled remotely by an anonymous crowd watching and participating via the internet. Stelarc climbed into the machine, which he had named Movatar, and the system began to boot up. Soon enough, it connected to the internet where invisible strangers awaited.

Unlike a dancer who captivates you with the effortlessness of their movement, Movatar was compelling for its awkwardness. Its upper body moved jerkily, as if in opposition to the legs beneath. Its clumsy movements were strangely moving, brimming with significance — but signifying what exactly? I sensed a window opening onto the relationship between humans and their technologies and the same contradictions that had inspired Hesiod.

Stelarc’s Movatar prophesied what was to happen to us when traditional capital evolved into cloud capital, from a “produced means of production” into a produced means of behavior modification. Stelarc was merely experimenting with the idea of the post-human, but his Movatar captured the essence of humanity’s future reality. As I see it now, Movatar was a creature at the mercy of hyper-connected, algorithmically driven, cloud-based capital. Another name for it would be Homo technofeudalis.

The Death Of The Liberal Individual

For young people in today’s world curating an identity online is not optional, and so their personal lives have become some of the most important work they do. From the moment they take their first steps online, they suffer like Movatar from two perplexingly contradictory demands: They are taught implicitly to see themselves as a brand, yet one that will be judged according to its perceived authenticity. (And that includes potential employers: “No one will offer me a job,” a graduate told me once, “until I have discovered my true self.”)

And so, before posting any image, uploading any video, reviewing any movie, sharing any photograph or message, they must be mindful of who their choice will please or alienate. They must somehow work out which of their potential “true selves” will be found most attractive, continually testing their own opinions against their notion of what the average opinion among online opinion makers might be.

Every experience can be captured and shared, and so they are continually consumed by the question of whether to do so. And even if no opportunity actually exists for sharing the experience, that opportunity can readily be imagined and will be. Every choice, witnessed or otherwise, becomes an act in the curation of an identity.

One need not be a radical critic of our society to see that the right to a bit of time each day when one is not for sale has all but vanished. The irony is that the liberal individual was snuffed out neither by fascist Brownshirts nor by Stalinist guards. It was killed off when a new form of capital began to instruct youngsters to do that most liberal of things: Be yourself! (And be successful at it!) Of all the behavioral modifications that cloud capital has engineered and monetized, this one is surely its overarching and crowning achievement.

Possessive individualism has always been detrimental to mental health. Technofeudalism made things infinitely worse when it demolished the fence that used to provide the liberal individual with a refuge from the market. Cloud capital has shattered the individual into fragments of data, an identity comprised of choices as expressed by clicks, which its algorithms are able to manipulate.

“Every choice, witnessed or otherwise, becomes an act in the curation of an identity.”

It has produced individuals who are not so much possessive as possessed, or rather persons incapable of being self-possessed. It has diminished our capacity to focus by co-opting our attention. We have not become weak-willed. No, our focus has been stolen. And because technofeudalism’s algorithms are known to reinforce patriarchy, stereotypes and pre-existing oppressions, those who are most vulnerable — girls, the mentally ill, the marginalized and, yes, the poor — suffer the outcome most.

If fascism taught us anything, it is our susceptibility to demonizing stereotypes and the ugly attraction of emotions like righteousness, fear, envy and loathing that they arouse in us. In our technofeudal world, the internet brings the feared and loathed “other” closer, right in your face. And because online violence seems bloodless and anodyne, we are more likely to respond to this “other” online with taunting, inhuman language and bile.

Bigotry is technofeudalism’s emotional compensation for the frustrations and anxieties we experience in relation to identity and focus. Comment moderators and hate-speech regulation can’t stop this because it is intrinsic to cloud capital, whose algorithms optimize for cloud rents, which flow more copiously from hatred and discontent.

In the face of technofeudalism, acting alone, isolated, as liberal individuals will not get us very far. Cutting ourselves off from the internet, switching off our phones, using cash instead of plastic may help for a while but they are no solution. Unless we band together, we shall never civilize or socialize cloud capital, and so we shall never reclaim our own minds from its grip.

And herein lies the greatest contradiction: to rescue that foundational liberal idea — of liberty as self-ownership — will require a comprehensive reconfiguration of property rights over the increasingly cloud-based instruments of production, distribution, collaboration and communication. To resuscitate the liberal individual, we need to do something that liberals detest: plan a new revolution.

The Impossibility Of Social Democracy

Why can’t technofeudalism be tamed by politics in the same way capitalism was restrained, at least for a while, by social democratic governments?

Social democrats were able to make a difference during a time when power was vested in old-fashioned industrial capital. They acted as referees between organized labor and the captains of the manufacturing industry, metaphorically (and occasionally literally) sitting them around a table, forcing them to compromise. The result was, on the one hand, improved wages and conditions for the workers and, on the other hand, the diversion of a chunk of industry’s profits to pensions, hospitals, schools, unemployment insurance and the arts.

But as power shifted from industry to finance after the death of Bretton Woods in 1971, European social democrats and American Democrats alike were lured into a Faustian bargain with the bankers of Wall Street and the cities of London, Frankfurt and Paris. The bargain was crude and simple: Social democrats in government freed bankers from the shackles of regulation: “Go crazy! Regulate yourselves,” they told them. In return, financiers agreed to hand over the crumbs from their substantial table, in the form of a small portion of their gargantuan gains from rabid financialization, to fund the welfare state.

In Homeric terms, the social democrats had become the era’s lotus-eaters. As they gorged themselves on financialization, they became intellectually soft and morally complicit in its practices. Its honeyed juice lulled them into the belief that what had once been risky was now riskless, that this magic goose would always lay golden eggs, and if those eggs could be used to finance the welfare state, then whatever else the goose did could be justified.

And so, when in 2008 financial capital came crashing down, they lacked both the mental tools and the moral values to tell the bankers: “Enough! We may save the banks but not you.” Hence, the lethal combination of socialism-for-bankers and austerity-for-almost-everyone-else that stagnated our economies while funding the rise of the cloudalists.

In the old days, social democrats had a degree of power over the industrialists because they had the backing of the trades unions and could threaten painful regulation. Today, cloudalists do not fear powerful unions because cloud proles are too weak to form them, and cloud serfs do not even consider themselves producers.

As for regulation, that has worked by putting a lid on prices or by breaking up cartels. In the Age of Cloud Capital, cloudalists feel safe in the thought that neither makes any sense. Price regulation is irrelevant when the services that consumers need to be protected from are either free or the cheapest on the market already.

“Cloud capital has shattered the individual into fragments of data, an identity comprised of choices as expressed by clicks, which its algorithms are able to manipulate.”

As for breaking them up, as President Theodore Roosevelt did to Rockefeller when he broke up Standard Oil and other cartels, that was only possible in the old days of terrestrial capital. Standard Oil comprised petrol stations, refineries and fuel transport systems strewn all over North America. Breaking it up into regional oil companies, and encouraging these to compete with one another, was politically hard but technically dead easy. But how does one break up Amazon, Meta, PayPal or, indeed, Tesla today?

Cloudalists know they can destroy any third-party developer (i.e. vassal capitalist), eking out a living on their cloud fief, who dares to contact one of their users (i.e. cloud serfs) without first paying a cloud rent. They know they can treat their users however they like — when did anyone last decline the terms and conditions of a software update? — because of the hostages they are holding: our contacts, friends, chat histories, photos, music, videos, all of which we lose if we switch to a competing cloud fief.

And they know that there is little that government can do to stop them. Unlike national phone companies, which our national governments forced to charge the same rates when calling customers of competing companies, how can they force X (formerly Twitter) to share the backlog of all your tweets, photos and videos with, say, Mastodon?

But what is the alternative to technofeudalism? And how will we build it?

Democratized Companies

Imagine a corporation in which every employee has a single share that they receive when hired, the way a student collects a library card upon enrolling at university. This share, which cannot be sold or leased, grants each employee a single vote. All decisions — hiring, promotion, research, product development, pricing, strategy — are taken collectively, with each employee exercising their vote via the company’s intranet, which thus functions as a permanent shareholders’ assembly. Equal ownership does not, however, mean equal pay.

Pay is determined by a democratic process that divides the company’s post-tax revenues into four slices: one to cover the firm’s fixed costs (such as equipment, licenses, utility bills, rent and interest payments), another set aside for R&D, a slice from which basic pay to staff is made and, lastly, a slice for bonuses. Again, the distribution between these four slices is decided collectively, on a one-person-one-vote basis.

Any proposal to increase one slice must be accompanied by a proposal to reduce expenditure on one or more of the other slices. Competing proposals are put to a vote where employee-shareholders rank each proposal in order of preference via an electronic ballot form. If no plan wins an absolute majority of first preferences, a process of elimination takes place. The plan with the fewest first preferences is knocked out and its first-preference votes are reallocated to the voter’s second preference. This simple algorithmic process is repeated until one business plan has acquired more than half the votes cast.

Having determined the amount of money the company will spend on the various slices, the basic pay slice is then divided equally among all staff — from persons recently employed as secretaries or cleaners to the firm’s star designers or engineers. This leaves one important question unanswered: How do they decide the distribution of the bonus slice between staff?

The answer is via a variant of the voting scheme made famous by the Eurovision Song Contest, in which each participating country is given a set number of points that it can allocate to the songs of every other country. In this spirit, once a year, employees are each given one hundred digital tokens to distribute among their colleagues.

The idea is simple: you allot these tokens to those colleagues whom you believe to have contributed most during the previous year. Once the tokens have been distributed, the total bonus slice is allocated in proportion to the number of tokens each employee has received from their colleagues.

The impact of legislating such a corporate governance system would be the equivalent of a large comet crashing into technofeudalism’s bedrock. On the most superficial level, it would liberate employees from the tyranny of self-serving managers, but on a structural level, it would do so much more.

“Unless we band together, we shall never civilize or socialize cloud capital, and so we shall never reclaim our own minds from its grip.”

First, it would eliminate the distinction between wages and profits; thus we have collective ownership and we have eliminated the fundamental class divide between those who own and collect profits or rents and those who lease their time for a wage. We have also abolished the market for shares — only an employee can own a share in a company, and only one share that can’t be sold or leased — thus cutting the umbilical cord that links finance and share market speculation.

In a stroke, we have ended financialization and destroyed private equity. We have also, most probably, done away with the need for regulators whose job is to break up large corporations before they establish monopolies. As collective decision-making becomes unwieldy in companies beyond a certain size — say, 500 people — it seems wholly likely that the employee-shareholders would not form them and, in the case of already formed conglomerates, would vote to break them up into smaller companies.

Most people I know, including generations of students I have taught, assume that capitalism equals markets. That socialism must mean the end of prices as signals to producers and consumers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalist firms are market-free zones within which a non-market process extracts surplus value from employees, which then takes the form of rent, profit and interest. The larger the firm, and the more cloud capital it employs, the greater the rents it extracts from a society whose markets malfunction as a result.

In contrast, the democratized companies I propose here are more consistent with well-functioning, competitive markets in which prices — free from the scourge of rent and concentrated market power — are formed. Put differently, doing away with capitalist firms, through terminating labor and share markets, paves the ground for truly competitive product markets and a process of price formation that powers up the great engine of entrepreneurship and innovation which conventional thinking, wrongly, associates with capitalism.

What would all this mean for the cloudalists? The various Bezoses, Zuckerbergs and Musks would wake up to find they owned a single share in “their” company granting them a single vote. On every single item of the continuous-time agenda of the Amazon, Facebook, X or Tesla decision-making process, they would have to sway a majority of their fellow, equally empowered, employee-shareholders.

Control over the firm’s cloud capital, including the almighty algorithms at their center, would be democratized, at least within the bounds of the company. Even so, cloud capital’s potency would be no less great — its nature as a produced means of behavioral modification would remain unchanged — and so the good society would need additional protections from it.

One such protection would be a Social Accountability Act stipulating that every corporation be graded according to an index of social worthiness, to be compiled by panels of randomly selected citizens, the equivalent of juries, chosen from a diverse pool of stakeholders: the company’s customers, members of the communities it affects, and so on. If a company’s rating falls consistently below a certain threshold, a public inquiry may result in the company’s deregistration. A second, even more pertinent, social protection is afforded by the termination of “free” services.

We have learned the hard way what happens when services are funded by selling users’ attention to third parties. It turns the users into cloud serfs, whose labor enhances and reproduces cloud capital, further tightening its grip on our minds and behavior. To replace the illusion of free services, our alternative reality features a micropayment platform, let’s call it “Penny For Your Thought.”

This works a bit like Netflix’s subscription model but combined with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service’s principle of universal provision. App developers needing our data would have to pay to get it from consenting users, who are protected by a Bill of Digital Rights that guarantees us all the right to choose which of our data to sell and to whom.

The combination of the micropayment platform and the Bill of Digital Rights terminates, in practice, the current attention-grabbing market model. At the same time, anyone using an app pays the developer for access to it. The sums involved are small for the individual, but for an app with a large pool of users, they add up. Would that not prevent some people from being able to afford the digital services they need? No, because of the way money works in this alternative system.

“To resuscitate the liberal individual, we need to do something that liberals detest: plan a new revolution.”

Democratized Money

Imagine that the central bank provided everyone with a free digital wallet, effectively a free bank account. To attract people to use it, a stipend (or basic dividend) is credited monthly to each account making universal basic income a reality. Taken one step further, the central bank pays interest to those who shift monies from their savings at commercial banks to their new digital wallet. In time, a mass if not total exodus would follow as people moved their savings from private banks to this new public digital payments and savings system. Would this not require the central bank to mint vast amounts of money?

Yes, the stipends will have to be minted anew, though not at a rate that exceeds the quantities central banks have been minting since 2008 to bolster permanently unstable private banks. As for the rest of the money, it has already been minted by the private banks. All that happens here is that it migrates from the private banks’ unsafe ledger to the safe ledger of the central bank.

As people and companies begin paying one another using this system, all money stays on the central bank ledger, moving from one part of it to another with every transaction, rather than being available to bankers and their shareholders to gamble with.

This turns central banks from pliant servants of private bankers to something like a monetary commons. To oversee its operations, including the quantity of money in the system and the privacy of each person’s transactions, the central bank is answerable to, and monitored by, a Monetary Supervision Jury comprising randomly selected citizens and experts drawn from a wide range of professions.

What about investment? In this system, you can lend your savings to a start-up or to a mature firm but you can’t buy a chunk of any firm — since shares are distributed solely on the one- employee-one-share basis. Rather, you can lend your savings directly, either using your central bank digital wallet or via an intermediary — but with this crucial stipulation: That intermediary cannot create money out of thin air, as banks do today whenever they issue a loan, but must trade in already-existing funds from actually existing savers.

What about taxation? Recall that there are three types of income. First, the basic dividends credited to citizens’ digital wallets by the central bank. Second, earnings from working in the democratized companies, comprising basic salary plus bonuses. Third, interest paid to savers by the central bank or by private intermediaries. None of these incomes are taxed. Nor are there any sales taxes, VAT or anything of that sort.

So, who finances the state? Every company does via a fixed tax on all revenues, e.g. 5%. Note that this is a fixed portion of total revenues, not profits, preventing the infinite scope for accounting tricks that dress up expenses as costs in order to shrink companies’ taxable income. The only other taxes fall on commercial land and buildings, discussed further below.

When it comes to international trade and payments, a new international financial system guarantees continual wealth transfers to the Global South, while also restraining trade and financial imbalances of the type that inflate bubbles and cause financial crashes. The idea is that all trade and money movements between different monetary jurisdictions — such as the UK, Germany, China and the United States — are denominated in a new digital international accounting unit, which I called the Kosmos.

If the Kosmos value of a country’s imports exceeds its exports, the country is charged an imbalance levy, in proportion to its trade deficit. Equally, if a country’s exports exceed its imports, it is also charged the same levy in proportion to its trade surplus. This terminates the mercantilist motive for one country persistently to extract value from another country by selling to it goods of greater value than those it imports from it, and, subsequently, lending them the money to continue buying from it — a form of vendor finance that places the weaker country in permanent debt bondage.

Meanwhile, a second surge levy is charged to a country’s Kosmos account whenever too much money moves too quickly out of, or into, the country. For decades, developing countries were undermined whenever the “smart” money, detecting future economic growth (e.g. South Korea, Thailand, some African countries), rushed in to buy land and companies before their price went up. As the money inflows surged, the prices of land and companies skyrocketed and false expectations regarding the level of growth set in, thus inflating bubbles.

“Price regulation is irrelevant when the services that consumers need to be protected from are either free or the cheapest on the market already.”

The moment the bubbles burst, as they inevitably do, the “smart” money rushed out of the country faster than it had rushed in, leaving nothing but ruined lives and economies behind. The purpose, therefore, of the surge levy is to tax these speculative money movements to stop unnecessary damage to the weakest of countries. Proceeds from these two levies are then used to fund direct green investments in the Global South.

The one-employee-one-share-one-vote system has revolutionary effects: it brings to an end share and labor markets and the Empire of Capital; it democratizes workplaces, and it organically diminishes the size of conglomerates. The reconfiguration of the central bank’s ledger as a common payment and savings system has similarly revolutionary effects: without actually banning private banks, it pulls the rug from under their feet by liberating us all from our dependence on them to make payments or to store our savings.

Moreover, the basic dividend provision revolutionizes our way of thinking about work, time and value, liberating us from the oppressive moral equation of paid drudgery and virtue. Finally, the Kosmos system balances the international ebb and flow of goods and money, preventing the exploitation of weaker economies by the more powerful ones while funding green investments in the parts of the world they are most needed.

These are the fundamental building blocks of an economy liberated from the tyranny of capital and, thus, denying technofeudalism the foothold it needs to take us over. The question now arises: How exactly do we free our societies from the tyranny of rent — the ancient ground-rent variety, which survived capitalism’s defeat of feudalism, and the cloud rents on which technofeudalism relies?

The Cloud & The Land As A Commons

The coffee is almost ready. Your laptop is booting up. Before long, coffee mug in hand, you are perusing the morning’s newsfeed from a media site run by your neighborhood library. The first item on the news concerns an upcoming local referendum, the second is beamed in from Brazil on the struggle to compensate its Indigenous peoples for decades of illegal logging, the third relates a debate within the current membership of the Monetary Supervision Jury on whether the central bank should lower the interest rate savers receive or, alternatively, increase everyone’s basic dividend.

It is a little dry for your taste so, careful to avoid the sports pages, you click on your favorite section, which is devoted to archaeology and is constantly updated by researchers from all over the world. Ah yes, now this gets your pulse racing!

Your newsfeed and its accompanying sections are compiled by an algorithm calibrated and maintained by the local public media center which is, in turn, owned by your municipality but controlled by local people selected through a combination of lotteries and elections. Sometimes you get bored with their newsfeed and turn to a digital world map full of dots, each one representing other local public media centers whose newsfeeds you can access at a click.

Every time you visit a media center outside your area, a tiny payment leaves your central bank account and helps fund the good people who offer you a window to their world. No ads, no behavioral modification algorithms. As for these tiny payments, they are insignificant in comparison to the basic dividend paid to you by the central bank monthly. Besides, paying them makes you feel good. They buy you — and everyone else — civilization. They offer you a bay window onto the world, to cooperative media centers strewn all over the planet trying their hardest to provide good, diverse, exciting information, knowledge and a touch of wisdom — as your local media outlet advertises its wares.

Your coffee mug empty, it is time to go to work. You tap on your phone’s travel app, also provided by your municipality, and then tap again on “work.” A list appears, of fares offered by various driver cooperatives, alongside information on where and when you can catch the nearest bus or train.

You recall with a brief shudder the days of Uber and Lyft, those cloud fiefs that exploited drivers’ labor, turning them into cloud proles, and passengers’ data, turning you into a cloud serf. The bad memory dissipates when you remind yourself that, these days, the driver-owners and the public transport staff control the algorithms — not the other way around. And you set off with a spring in your step now that you are no longer employed by a capitalist firm, owned by opaque shell companies, that treated you like a cross between a robot and human fodder. Life is still a minefield of worries, especially as we may have wrecked the climate irreparably, but at least work is not systematically soul-destroying.

“Under technofeudalism, we no longer own our minds.”

At work, you have an app on your phone that gives you access to all sorts of shareholder-employee ballots, some of which you vote in and some of which you choose to skip. If you have an idea for a new way of doing things or a new product, you post it on the company’s Ideas Board and wait to see who, among your colleagues, wants to work with you to develop it. If no one does, you can still go ahead and re-post the idea once it is better developed. Things are not perfect. Human nature always finds ways of messing up even the best of systems. Your colleagues, if they summon a majority, can vote to have you fired. But the atmosphere at work is now one of shared responsibility which reduces stress and creates an environment in which mutual respect has a better chance to flourish.

On your way home, as your cab exits the commercial zone, you cast your mind back to the sad ages when, to have somewhere to live, people had to choose between mortgage debt bondage and renting; between life in thrall to either the banker or the landlord; between predatory mortgage rates and rapacious rents. Now, every region is run by a County Association that oversees the division of land between commercial and social zones, so that rents collected from the former fund the provision of social housing in the latter.

As is the norm, the people who officiate at the County Association are selected randomly — with the help of an algorithm that guarantees fair representation of the various groups and communities within the county. Home is no longer a constant source of anxiety but somewhere you feel able to put down roots for the long term.

I’ll leave you to imagine the rest of your life in this alternative present, while I explain a bit more about this most crucial aspect of it: the ownership of land and property, that oldest of foundations of both the feudal and capitalist systems and the sharing of power.

The key to the rent charging system in the commercial zone is a Permanent Auction Subletting Scheme (PASS), a mechanism designed to ensure that communities can extract maximum rents from their commercial zones with which to invest in their social zones. PASS works a little like the famous trick for fairly distributing a cake between two people: one person cuts, the other chooses. In the same spirit, PASS creates a permanent auction that pits current occupiers of a commercial space against prospective occupiers.

Once a year, as a current occupier in the commercial zone, you must visit PASS and submit your valuation of your property based on two rules. First, PASS will compute your monthly rent as a fixed portion of your self-declared market value — with no audits, no red tape, no haggling, no estate agents. Great, right? But here comes the second rule: anyone can, at any point in the future, visit PASS and offer a higher valuation, in which case you are out and they are in within six months.

This second rule guarantees that you have an incentive to declare your valuation as truthfully and accurately as you can. If you overstate your true valuation, you will end up paying a rent higher than it’s worth. And if you understate it, you increase the chances of regretting your valuation — the moment someone offers a higher value, one closer to its true valuation, and in so doing boots you out.

The beauty of PASS is that the County Association does not have to set rents in the commercial zone. In the first instance, their job is simply to decide which land and buildings to assign to the commercial zones and which to the social zones. If they set aside too much land for social zones, they will have less money to invest in them. Conversely, expanding the commercial zones leaves less room for social housing and social enterprises. Once the County Association has decided how to resolve the trade-off, their second, harder task awaits: defining the criteria according to which social housing — especially the more desirable homes — are distributed. This is the toughest nut to crack. So, who sits on the County Association is crucial.

“While privatization and private equity asset-strip all physical wealth around us, cloud capital goes about the business of asset-stripping our brains.”

An elected County Association would replace the tyranny of land ownership with the tyranny of electoral systems, which have an inherent propensity to beget powerful hierarchies. Knowing this, ancient Athenian democrats opposed elections and replaced them with lotteries — the idea in which the Western jury system has its roots. If anything can recreate a land commons in a technologically advanced society, your County Association, comprised of randomly selected locals, is surely it.

The same principle extends beyond the regions and the counties to the governance of your nation as a whole, which takes place with the help of a nationwide Citizens’ Assembly. Comprised of randomly selected citizens from all over the land, this functions as a test bed of ideas, policies and legislation. Deliberation by its juror members helps shape the bills that Parliament later debates and passes. The “demos,” at long last, has been put back into democracy.

A Cloud Rebellion

In a world increasingly dominated by cloud capital, which is produced largely by the free labor of unwaged cloud serfs, organizing the proletariat — and indeed the precariat — is not going to cut it. I am not suggesting that organizing factory workers, train drivers, teachers and nurses is no longer necessary. What I am saying is that it is far from sufficient. To stand any chance of overthrowing technofeudalism and putting the demos back into democracy, we need to gather not just the

traditional proletariat and the cloud proles but also the cloud serfs and, indeed, at least some of the vassal capitalists. Nothing less than such a grand coalition that includes them all can undermine technofeudalism sufficiently.

It may sound like a tall order — and it is. But resistance to capital’s exorbitant power was always a tall order. When I think of what it took to organize a trade union in the 19th century, I shudder. Workers, miners, dockers, shearers, seamstresses faced beatings by mounted police and violence from thugs in the capitalists’ employ. Above all, they faced losing their jobs at a time when forgoing a day’s wages meant hunger for their families. Even when they managed to stage a successful strike, whatever wage rise they secured was shared by the non-strikers, adding to a calculus that already weighed heavily against mobilization. And yet they mobilized. They did so against the odds, expecting certain massive personal losses in exchange for small and uncertain shared benefits.

Technofeudalism erects a great new barrier to mobilization against it. But it also bestows a great new power upon those who dare dream of a coalition to topple it. The great new barrier is the physical isolation of cloud serfs and cloud proles from one another. We interact with and are subject to cloud capital via our individual screens, via our personal mobile phones, via the digital devices that monitor and manage Amazon warehouse workers. Collective action is made harder when people have fewer opportunities to come together. But herein lies the great power that cloud capital presents to its potential rebels: a capacity to build coalitions, organize and take action via the cloud.

In its early days, this was one of the promises of Twitter, of course: that it could enable the mobilization of the masses. From the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, we have seen how far that promise has been realized and how far it has not. But I am talking not just about a mobilization via the cloud but about actions that could actually occur using the systems and technologies of the cloud. Imagine global action targeting one cloudalist company at a time — starting with Amazon.

Imagine an international coalition of trade unions calling upon Amazon warehouse workers worldwide to stay away for one day. On its own, such action is feeble. But not so if a broader campaign persuaded enough of its users and customers globally not to visit the Amazon website just for that one day, to resist their status as serfs or vassals for that brief window.

The personal inconvenience involved would be trivial but its cumulative effect would be remarkable. Even if it were only mildly successful, causing say a 10% drop in Amazon’s usual revenues, while Amazon’s warehouse strike disrupted deliveries for 24 hours, such action might prove enough to push Amazon’s share price down in ways that no traditional labor action could achieve. This is how cloud proles and cloud serfs can unite effectively. It’s what I call cloud mobilization.

“To own our minds individually, we must own cloud capital collectively.”

The beauty of cloud mobilization is that it stands on its head the conventional calculus of collective action. Instead of maximal personal sacrifice for minimal collective gain, we now have the opposite: minimal personal sacrifice delivering large collective and personal gains. This reversal has the potential to pave the way toward a coalition of cloud serfs and cloud proles that is large enough to disrupt cloudalists’ control over billions of people.

Naturally, actions of this sort against one or even several major cloudalist enterprises won’t be enough. The cloud rebellion I envision will need to recruit to its cause many diverse constituencies — including, for example, anyone who loses sleep when their water and energy bills arrive. Smartly calculated, targeted payment strikes could be used to cause an equivalent drop in the private utility companies’ share and derivatives prices.

Timed well, these peaceful guerrilla strikes could do a lot of damage to the political and economic clout of conglomerates whose fates are increasingly fused with that of cloud finance. The rebellion could gather international support as well if it used, say, a consumer boycott in the United States specifically to target a company for its squeezing of workers in Nigeria or the destruction of natural reserves in the Congo.

Another campaign could involve inviting nominations from all over the world for companies with the worst record of zero-hours contracts or low pay, big carbon footprints or poor working conditions, or those that are in the habit of “downsizing” to boost share prices — and then organizing a mass withholding of pension contributions to the pension funds that own shares in those companies. Merely announcing the targeting of a pension fund would be enough to send its shares crashing and to cause an exodus of worried investors from equity funds related to it.

Inspired by Wikileaks, I can imagine a group of rebels writing and uploading digital viruses whose purpose would simply be transparency: to trace and reveal to the world the hidden digital connections between cloudalists, government agencies and bad actors like fossil fuel companies. How and whether this is possible, I do not know, but I am convinced that if by whatever means these institutions knew that they had billions of eyes trained on their actions, they would be paralyzed — and as the scales fell from those billions of eyes, the coalition would summon further allies and support.

None of this is either easy or inevitable. But is it harder or less likely than what the miners, the seamstresses and the dockworkers envisioned and sacrificed their very lives to achieve in the 19th century? The cloud takes — but the cloud also gives to those who want to reclaim freedom and democracy. It is up to them, to us, to decide, and to prove, which is greater.

Marx famously described our condition under capitalism as one of “alienation,” owing to our having no ownership of the products of our labor, to our having no say in how things get done. Under technofeudalism, we no longer own our minds. Every proletarian is turning into a cloud prole during working hours and into a cloud serf the rest of the time. Every self-employed striver mutates into a cloud vassal, while every self-employed struggler becomes a cloud serf.

While privatization and private equity asset-strip all physical wealth around us, cloud capital goes about the business of asset-stripping our brains. To own our minds individually, we must own cloud capital collectively. It’s the only way we can turn our cloud-based artifacts from a produced means of behavior modification to a produced means of human collaboration and emancipation.

Cloud serfs, cloud proles and cloud vassals of the world, unite!

We have nothing to lose but our mind-chains!