Resisting Surveillance Capitalism

by Nikhil Venkatesh / August 25, 2020

Image: Chris Yang

Bad New Times | Books  }
Socialists should be worried about surveillance capitalism not because it is an unprecedented economic form, but because it exploits and alienates in ways similar to 19th century industrial capitalism. 3626 words / 14 min read

In 2019 Barack Obama listed Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power as one of his books of the year. This baffled some of those who had read it: not only is Zuboff’s book is highly critical of the ‘revolving door’ between the Obama administration and big tech companies, but it offers a critique of the modern economy that goes much further and much deeper than one Obama might be expected to endorse.

In the book, Zuboff lays out the history and nature of what she terms ‘surveillance capitalism’. Surveillance capitalism is the primary business model of some of the world’s most powerful companies, and is increasingly becoming, in Zuboff’s view, the dominant economic form. Surveillance capitalists profit by harvesting, analysing and selling data about the people who use their products. The first surveillance capitalist firm was Google, followed by Facebook; recently, firms such as Microsoft and Amazon have pivoted towards such a model.

The theoretical account of surveillance capitalism given in Zuboff’s book - and also found in her pithier 2015 article ‘Big Other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilisation’ - goes like this. When we use the products of surveillance capitalists – their search engines, social media platforms, WiFi, mobile phones and so on – they capture information about us: our ‘data exhaust’, in the jargon. This includes what we ‘like’ on Facebook, the content of our emails and searches, our geographical and cyberspace locations, our purchases, and so on. This data exhaust is worked on by machine learning technology – and the aggregated data of other users – to produce ‘user profile information’: working out what kind of person we are. Using data in this way was Google’s innovation; it is what allowed them to provide users with more relevant search results, and so to capture the largest part of the search engine market in the early 2000s. Google at this time was a company of geeks and idealists, living off venture capital that simply wanted to be in on the ground floor of whatever the internet turned out to be. Then came the dot-com crash, and Google’s investors demanded profit.

The obvious way to monetise user profile information was through targeted advertising. Google charged advertisers according to the amount of times users clicked on their adverts, and by using user profile information Google could put users in front of the adverts they were most likely to click on, meaning that advertisers paid them more. This highly profitable model soon spread to other firms (Sheryl Sandberg, of Lean In fame, is credited by Zuboff with taking it from Google to Facebook). It is not, on Zuboff’s account, essential to surveillance capitalism that advertising is the way in which user profile information is turned into profit. What surveillance capitalists hold is ‘behavioural surplus’, predictions of what people will do in different circumstances, which can be used to manipulate what they in fact do. This can be clicking on online ads, but it has many other possible uses: for instance, mobilising and de-mobilising voters, or increasing footfall in certain locations. It also has uses for states. Zuboff believes it is no coincidence that surveillance capitalism took off alongside the War on Terror, as the American government became more enthusiastic about mass data collection. In the current pandemic, states are looking to surveillance capitalists to fulfil policy goals: whether that be through contact-tracing apps (in Australia, the data will be handled by Amazon) or reimagined remotely delivered public services as Google’s Eric Schmidt advocates here, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is happy to encourage.

Once you learn the concept, you see surveillance capitalism everywhere. It is most obvious in its purest forms, Google search, Gmail and Chrome histories, and the vast amounts of data kept on Facebook users. But it is a growing part of the business model of just about every company whose interactions with the public can be milked for data. Why does every shop want you to take a loyalty card, or open an online account? Why do profit-seeking companies offer free public WiFi? Why is Pokémon Go given away free, but only playable if you constantly reveal your location over GPS – and why is it telling me I have to go to that particular McDonald’s to train my Pokémon? Why does Uber still get investment, whilst it loses huge amounts of money every year, but gathers data on where people are and want to go, and when?

Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism is an unprecedented economic form. She contrasts it with the industrial capitalism which emerged in the 19th century and seems to persist in broad outline, (though it has undergone significant changes, as many other theorists point out). Zuboff doesn’t think that industrial production will cease as surveillance capitalism expands, but rather that the latter will become the most significant form of accumulation, driving the organisation of the economy. She also argues that surveillance capitalism is a more problematic and dangerous form of capitalism than that which it is replacing. But reading her work in the light of Marxist theory, it is striking how similar the two seem. In the model of industrial capitalism described by Marx, two classes face each other: the capitalists, who own the means of production; and the workers, who do not. Workers need things to survive – food, shelter, healthcare and so on. But they cannot produce these things themselves, since they do not have access to the means of production. Instead, they sell their labour-power to capitalists in return for a wage sufficient to buy the things they need. Combining labour-power with capital, under the control of the capitalist, produces some product that the capitalist sells on the market. If the sale price of this product outstrips the wage paid to the worker, the capitalist profits.1 Now, compare with Zuboff’s account of surveillance capitalism. Just as workers are driven to sell their labour-power to industrial capitalists by their need for material subsistence, users have a need for social participation. They cannot meet this need alone, so they need to make a deal with surveillance capitalists, who relieve users’ needs with access to their platforms. In return, users allow surveillance capitalists to harvest their data. Rather than producing by combining labour-power with capital, they combine users’ data with their machine intelligence and the data of other users to create products that they sell for profit.

Seeing this analogy - which Zuboff herself does not make, though she provides lots of evidence for it - shows why socialists should be worried about surveillance capitalism: it involves the same problems of alienation and exploitation as industrial capitalism. Just as workers’ capacity to work becomes a commodity (labour-power), users transform their behaviour – every click, like, message, movement – into the commodity of data. As commodities, both labour-power and data have their value determined by the market rather than the subjective meanings they have to workers and users; yet both the capacity to work and one’s social behaviour are imbued with such meaning, and tightly bound up with our identities. For Google and other ‘big data’ aggregators, however, the data are merely bits – just as for industrial capitalists, the labour-power of workers is merely a ‘factor of production’. So not only are we alienated from our behaviour, but also from the entities that facilitate our online lives; the surveillance capitalists themselves. They do not care whether a status update is about a bereavement or a birth, an incitement to racial violence or a call for solidarity. They only care about getting more data, and more clicks. We are alienated too, from what our data produces. It is put together with the data of others, and intelligent software, to create a product that is sold on the market. It is sold to other faceless corporations whom we may not even know exist, and we do not receive the proceeds of the sale. It is, importantly, about us – even more so than a yard of linen is about the weaver who produced it. But it is not something we have any chance of owning or even understanding.

As commodities, both labour-power and data have their value determined by the market rather than the subjective meanings they have to workers and users; yet both the capacity to work and one’s social behaviour are imbued with such meaning, and tightly bound up with our identities.

Thus, users are also exploited, as workers are. They have input into the product but do not own it, and receive far less than its sale-price in value. This is exploitation not simply in Marx’s technical sense, but in the more everyday sense, in which the fact that we need something is used to get other things from us. We need the products surveillance capitalists are providing – just as workers need wages. This is not simply a matter of the needs we have for friendship and social connections, party invitations and validation of your selfies, but also for material subsistence. If you don’t have a mobile phone (the vast majority of which use Google’s Android operating system) or a computer (the vast majority of which use Microsoft’s Windows operating system) or internet access (usually provided through Microsoft or Google browsers) it is difficult and often impossible to do the things necessary for subsistence, such as applying for jobs and benefits, or to do many of the jobs that are available. The current crisis has thrown this into sharp relief. How much more difficult would life be – socialising, but also providing and accessing mutual aid and official health advice – without Facebook, WhatsApp, and Gmail? How many employers are effectively forcing their workers to use software such as Zoom about which there are significant privacy concerns?

The analogy with Marx’s picture of industrial capitalism also allows us to see that Zuboff, in her belief that surveillance capitalism is an unprecedented and far more dangerous economic form than industrial capitalism, is too rosy about the past and perhaps too gloomy about the future. Because industrial capitalists needed the co-operation of workers and customers, Zuboff argues, they granted them better wages, working conditions and consumer goods. Hence the rising living standards (at least in the global North) of the trente glorieuses, which she seems to see as halcyon days. For surveillance capitalism, on the other hand, ‘populations are no longer necessary as the source of customers or employees’. The customers, for a surveillance capitalist, are advertisers, not individual consumers; surveillance capitalist firms employ very few people given their size, relying instead on machine intelligence. But Zuboff goes too far here. If users are analogous to the working-class, although a surveillance capitalist’s customers are advertisers, advertisers in turn depend on a population that has demand for goods. So just as in industrial capitalism, there is at least some incentive for surveillance capitalists not to impoverish the population and kill demand. And like workers, users are the source of the surplus on which capitalist profit rests. It is their participation, after all, which generates the surplus.

We should not overstate the reciprocal relationships in either case. It is only under certain conditions that industrial capitalists’ need for their populations leads to reciprocities. With a large reserve army of labour, or high consumer demand from other members of the capitalist class, individual workers and consumers are less necessary. It is not obvious that the gains workers have made were due to capitalists recognising their interest in reciprocity rather than to workers fighting, through trade unions, street movements and social-democratic parties (along with the Cold War threat posed by communism) and in the face of opposition from capitalists. Similarly, whilst surveillance capitalists have an interest in populations not being impoverished and being attracted to their platforms, there are many areas in which the interests of such firms and their users conflict; for example, surveillance capitalists will always want to squeeze more data from their users, just as industrial capitalists will always want to squeeze more hours from their workers. And more data can be squeezed from users by encouraging them to use platforms beyond what is necessary to fulfil their social needs, which can (like overwork) be extremely damaging. In both forms of capitalism, therefore, there are elements of reciprocity and of conflict. We should recognise also, that industrial capitalism’s trente glorieuses were a good deal more glorious for the fraction of the global workforce located in the Northern/Western imperial core, and similarly, that the users surveillance capitalists need to attract and advertise to will skew to those with more free time, money and cultural power: a similarly located fraction. There was and will be, therefore, tensions between different worker/user populations, and the possibility of divide-and-rule tactics by capital. And so we should expect that in the era of surveillance capitalism, just as in industrial capitalism, class struggle and compromise will interact in complex ways.

One major analytical difference between Zuboff’s account and the Marxian analogy I am suggesting is about the nature of the exchange between surveillance capitalists and users. Zuboff tends to talk as if the surveillance capitalist’s appropriation of data is either a robbery, or the harvesting of raw material. But if users are analagous to wage labourers, they will rationally (though without reasonable alternative choices) sell their data to surveillance capitalists. That is, if I need to use Facebook in order to stay in touch with my family, I will voluntarily hand over my data to Mark Zuckerberg – just as if I need a job in order to feed my family, I will voluntarily hand over my labour-power to Mike Ashley.

One thing this suggests is that privacy laws, or giving users ownership of their data, will not be enough to disrupt surveillance capitalism. Say that laws are brought in meaning that no firm can collect any data about you without your explicit consent – a beefed up version of GDPR. Or that, as former US Presidential candidate Andrew Yang suggested, we see our data as our property. As long as you need the services of surveillance capitalists, and they ask for your data in return for access to their platforms, you will simply give your consent, or as we might put it, sell the data you own. A law that might successfully resist surveillance capitalism would be one that prevented firms from making their services conditional on users offering up our data to them. But if our data is our property, would this not be an infraction of our liberal right to sell what we own?

How, then, could we resist surveillance capitalism? The ‘data as labour’ movement encourages us to think of our time online as labour, and to create and fight for functioning labour markets in the digital sphere. Perhaps certain traditional tools of class conflict could be suitably adapted from working-class to ‘user-class’ struggle: unionisation, strikes, regulation through social-democratic governments and so on. In some ways it might be easier to organise such things for users than for workers, and in some ways it will be harder. They are certainly important and worth trying. But all they can do is make surveillance capitalism a more hospitable place to be, a place where the voice and needs of users are taken seriously. They cannot prevent the logic of surveillance capitalism, and take us out of a world where we barter, on better or worse terms, data for social participation.

To view an individual’s data as something they personally own, either as property or labour, obscures the social and international nature of the process by which it creates value.

Moreover, to view an individual’s data as something they personally own, either as property or labour, obscures the social and international nature of the process by which it creates value. It is largely when it is aggregated alongside data gathered from others that our data is interesting to surveillance capitalists and advertisers. And it is also valuable only insofar as it can be used to affect our valuable behaviour, such as purchases. The data of richer people, who consume more, is thus more valuable than the data of the poor – but it is only valuable at all because there are people producing things to be purchased. Clair Quentin warns us against the “value-theoretical fantasy… that we create value for capital by dint of… our unpaid immaterial labour building the vast databases of our own commodity preferences that are held by social media giants”2, since this neglects those (usually poor, often in the global South) who actually produce both the commodities that those preferences are for and much of the hardware (as well as extracting the materials) that make surveillance capitalism possible. Although the analogy I have suggested does hold that our use of social media is part of the process that creates value for capital, this need not drive us to, as Quentin worries that it will, the position that the value thus created ought to be enjoyed by the generally wealthier users whose data it is, rather than the generally poorer workers who are responsible for other inputs. Both data-as-property and data-as-labour approaches run the risk of suggesting that it should, as they encourage users to leverage their own contribution to the process.

A more fundamental form of resistance to surveillance capitalism would be to resist the form of proletarianisation that creates its conditions. That is, we should ensure that people are able to engage in society without the use of online platforms owned by tech giants. Industrial capitalism, for Marx, relies upon the formation of a class of people (the proletariat) without access to the means of production; these people are forced to become workers for industrial capitalists who do have such access. Similarly, surveillance capitalism relies upon the creation of a group of people who do not have access to the means of social participation. It is perhaps no accident that surveillance capitalism has grown alongside a privatisation of outdoor public space, an increasing transience of people, a diminishment of interpersonal trust and a decline in civil, sporting, religious and political membership organisations. We need to restore the possibilities of living without reliance on Facebook, Google and the like – through creating both offline and online alternatives. Perhaps this is utopian nostalgia, and the genie cannot go back into the bottle. I am certainly not suggesting we go back to a time where we all lived in villages, went to church, and knew each other’s business. But one thing the current crisis is provoking is new forms of social participation, on new platforms. Could some of these be kept outside the clutches of surveillance capitalists?

Lastly, we should remember that Marx did not want to turn the clock back on industrial capitalism; to make workers once again peasants, working for their own subsistence but powerless to enrich their lives. Rather, he wanted to harness for the benefit of all the opportunities that industrial capitalism had opened. Likewise, surveillance capitalism has opened opportunities that can be so harnessed. As Zuboff notes, the growth of the Internet permitted forms of social participation that had never before been open to us, and our lives are in some ways freer than ever. The possibility of better connecting people with each other, and with things they want and need, is a good thing. Online platforms could facilitate more decommodified exchanges between individuals – think of file-sharing, the ‘freecycling’ of second-hand goods and the crowdsourcing of advice and material support on social media, the masses of free and voluntarily produced writing and art. In the current crisis, they have been crucial to the establishment of mutual aid groups. Even data harvesting – when open, transparent and collectively managed – promises benefits to public policy and to our knowledge of one another. (A good example here is the Mayor of London’s open data.) Another strategy for resisting surveillance capitalism, then, is to seize control of the platforms and data flows, and redirect them away from profit and towards the common good. There was a spike of interest in such ideas on the British left a few years ago, with Paul Mason (in a more serious mood than he currently is) as well as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams making proposals along these lines, under the name of ‘postcapitalism’.3 The development of these ideas took something of a back seat as the British left’s energies went into defending Corbyn’s ultimately fairly traditional social democratic project – although they did find their way into a couple of essays in the John McDonnell-edited Economics for the Many. Without the urgent pressure to produce focus-grouped manifesto pledges and respond to arcane questions of party organisation, we can now experiment, and think big about the direction of the global economy over the next century. Tackling surveillance capitalism – as the current crisis accelerates its grip on our lives – should be a large part of that thinking.

  1. Marx’s ‘official’ account is in Capital, vol. I (see especially – but not only – chs. 6–9). For a more intuitive and somewhat simplified version see his earlier ‘Wage Labour and Capital’

  2. Note that those in the global South are also a growing part of surveillance capitalism’s user-base – and are especially exploited as such, by things such as Facebook’s ‘free basics’, which offers internet access but only to certain sites, largely Western-owned. 

  3. Paul Mason. 2015. Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future, London: Allen Lane. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. 2016. _Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. London: Verso. For a very good review of both books, see Owen Hatherley in the London Review of Books 


Nikhil Venkatesh (@NikVenkatesh)

Nikhil Venkatesh is a PhD candidate and postgraduate teaching assistant in the Department of Philosophy at University College London.