The fast delivery of food and groceries ordered via apps for Deliveroo, Just Eats or Gorillas. Apps for booking short holiday accommodation via Airbnb, taxis through Uber or Bolt, or even a dog walker through dogGo. These are just a few examples of how “platform apps” run through our everyday lives.
Hidden behind the app, is a cash-fuelled company with wealthy private owners. They’ve been made rich by the hard toil of an army of taxi drivers, bicycle and scooter couriers and other workers on bottom rates of pay.
How can these giants of Big Tech be brought under control? Is there a socialist alternative to Big Tech and would we need the likes of Facebook under socialism? In his new book, Platform Socialism—How to Reclaim our Digital Future from Big Tech, Exeter University academic James Muldoon attempts to provide answers. He describes how local communities and social movements might “take back control” and “reclaim the emancipatory possibilities of digital platforms”.
The book is very much a book of two halves. In the first half, Muldoon explores the opaqueness of the Big Tech companies. His description of the exploitative nature of Big Tech and platform models of operating is convincing.
The rise of “platform” businesses has been very rapid. The Google search engine was launched in 1998, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005. Twitter was launched in 2006, WhatsApp in 2009 and Instagram in 2010. Platform delivery companies are similarly new, Deliveroo was launched in London in 2013, Airbnb in California in 2008 and Uber in 2009.
Today most of these companies form mega corporations, having wiped out or marginalised competition to become near monopolies in their field. And the app economy is widening and deepening its scope. E-commerce and streaming have thrived through the pandemic and created a new breed of multi-billionaire. Deliveroo now operates “dark kitchens”, where armies of catering staff work to provide restaurant-branded food cooked in warehouses remote from any high street restaurant.
Utopian visions of dispersed community-based networks—championed by Paul Mason as “post-capitalism” or Aaron Bastani as “fully automated luxury communism”—dissipate through the concentration of capital. Facebook/Meta now owns both WhatsApp and Instagram, while Google/Alphabet owns YouTube, Fitbit and Waze. Founders such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have become household names. They claim to be bound together by an “alternative” Silicon Valley business-model of high-tech headquarters buildings and advanced “human resource” practices. In truth they have engaged in anti-union campaigns while amassing huge personal fortunes.
Despite their self-avowed community ethos, they have become remote mega-corporations with the ear of government and a wider circle of big business and military interests. They evade accountability and have “found a way to be everywhere and nowhere”. “If you want to subscribe, they’re just a click away,” he writes. “But if you are looking for taxes, their headquarters are not in your country and most of their profits have been paid to a subsidiary company as a licensing fee.”
Muldoon examines two case studies within the platform economy to expand his argument—Facebook and Airbnb. The companies’ purposes are different. Facebook is a social media platform that harvests data on individuals for sale. Airbnb is a brokerage app placing holiday homeowners in touch with holiday makers for a small fee.
But they share the lack of accountability and democratic input common to all the platforms. Facebook records our “click” history in return for free access. Our data is then monetised as a sellable product to advertisers, who in turn target our computer and smartphone screens with their products. “Value” is extracted from the data. It’s free at the point of supply, but it’s then processed by data entry staff and huge computer complexes that use as much electrical energy as some nation states.
The process raises massive privacy concerns as we are subject to monitoring, surveillance and behavioural analysis—while assuming we are simply messaging a friend. Under capitalism, Facebook can thrive as advertising is part and parcel of the pursuit of profit and data can be treated as a commodity. Facebook’s revenue from advertising totalled US$ 25 billion in the first quarter of 2012, up 46 percent from the same quarter the previous year.
As Muldoon suggests, the Big Tech companies in social media are now large enough to face up to consumer boycotts. We saw that with #StopHateForProfit in 2020, organised in response to Donald Trump tweeting, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” during Black Lives Matter protests. These giants can also withstand regulation from governments. They are themselves tied to a capitalist economy and merely seek to restrain the very worst exploitative practices, rather than to abolish exploitation. The existential threat to the social media giants’ survival comes from them falling out of fashion. In February 2022 Facebook reported its first drop in daily usage since its foundation, as younger users switched to alternatives such as Tik Tok. Its stock value immediately fell as a result.
Airbnb provides us with a different platform model. While presenting itself in cult-like fashion as “the world’s largest community-driven hospitality company”, it also runs fierce lobbying and litigation campaigns against a number of cities. An increasing number of local authorities are concerned that Airbnb’s popularity is driving long-term, private rental accommodation from the market.
Airbnb has sought to ward off attempts to regulate its activities through propaganda campaigns about its “mom and pop” rentals. But Muldoon reports that the majority of “hosts” now have multiple listings and are run by professional rental companies. In some parts of Britain, one in four residential properties are now advertised as holiday rentals through Airbnb. This exacerbates the problem of rural homelessness in tourist areas, such as the south west of England and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Amsterdam, London, Paris, Tokyo and San Francisco have attempted to cap the number of days per year a holiday rental can be used through the app. They have been all opposed by the company. Rather than grassroots community-building, the company has engaged in “corporate community organising” to defend its interests in propaganda wars and to fight attempts at regulation.
The second half of the book is devoted to what can be done around Muldoon’s vision of platform socialism. He proposes key objectives. They include the self-governance and social ownership of digital assets, sharing benefits of new technologies, and the destruction of power inequalities inherent in Big Tech platforms. Muldoon is clear that “lasting change will never come about with benevolent Silicon Valley CEOs growing a social conscience”. What’s needed is “a shift in the balance of power between platform owners and the communities they exploit”.
Muldoon described plenty of examples of attempts to wrest back control from corporate profit interests. He highlights the case of Birmingham City Council in the 1870s as a model. Buying municipal control of the city’s water supply sat alongside a drive to municipalise health provision and construct public facilities such as swimming pools, libraries, parks and museums. Contemporary examples include city-based taxi apps—owned and controlled by drivers—and platform co-ops such as Up&Go home cleaners. But such modern examples are few and far between and are surpassed by the size and power of the likes of Uber and Deliveroo. They operate on a different financial and business model, often dependent on venture capital.
To take the argument for “platform socialism” forward, questions about state regulation become important. But, as Muldoon suggests, it would be welcome but still insufficient to wrest power from Big Tech itself. He is also cautious of nationalisation, or re-nationalisation, as a cure for power inequalities and lack of democracy in Big Tech. This echoes Mason and others views of nationalisation as a failed model, which brought with it problems of accountability and democratic control. Of course, we’d also take issue with the state bureaucracies of post-1945 social democracy or the Stalinist system of centrally-controlled state plans. But nationalisation under workers’ control—and without compensation to bosses—is a different beast
Nationalising Facebook and Twitter would need to involve the dispossession of the technological architecture and the financial assets from the Big Tech corporations. It would also require the abandonment of data monitoring and the advertising-based business model. Would we still desire a democratically controlled Facebook and Twitter under socialism? I leave that to readers to decide.
Muldoon’s solution for a final version of platform socialism lies more in the realm of “economic science fiction”. We must use our imagination to configure a brave new world of digital democracy. He leans on the Marxist philosophical writings of Ernst Bloch in his three-volume book Principle of Hope, written in the 1950s. Bloch presented a utopian case for socialism based on the optimism inherent in our everyday desire for better lives. The difference between what we desired to achieve and what exists under capitalism is presented as an inherent contradiction. It’s a contradiction insolvable until the material barriers constructed by capitalism are removed.
Further inspiration for Muldoon comes from the early English socialist and labour historian GDH Cole. The vision presented here, following the path of Cole, is a bottom-up form of socialism that rejects the power of a central state in favour of workers’ control and democracy. His vision was similar to what was espoused by the “Guild Socialists” in Britain in the early part of the 20th century. They envisaged a society where workers ran their workplaces through workers’ guilds.
Cole’s ideas, and those of the radical left at the time, were influential in the formation of the Labour Party from various left wing groupings. It intermingled with a powerful “syndicalist” tradition, which similarly rejected state power in the pursuit of militant trade unionism. Cole himself was described by an associate as “a bit of a puzzle” mixing the Fabian top-down view of socialism with workers’ self-activity—a “Bolshevik Soul in a Fabian Muzzle”.
His writings, according to the philosopher Ernest Gellner, were “an unselective, eclectic, unfastidious mishmash”. In essence, it was perhaps a radical form of left wing social democracy. One that relied on the power of the will, rather than the revolutionary seizure of capitalist property as the path to socialist transformation.
It is this specific model of radical social democracy which may lead us to question Muldoon’s platform socialism. This is not to say that we should reject the power of the socialist imagination. The book stretches our horizons and provokes aspirations within us for another possible world. Rather, our framing of a socialist democracy based on workers’ power and control, must recognise the nature of the beast.
We must recognise the power of the state, the armed forces and capital’s willingness to fight tooth and nail to preserve their property and profits. Radical ideas for socialist transformation must go hand-in-hand with revolutionary consciousness and workers’ power—neither one nor the other on its own will do.