Subsuming The Digital

How can capitalism, a system that serves the privilege of few and necessitates the misery of many, remain the unchallenged status quo for centuries? While this question certainly poses great academic appeal it is more than theoretical. Answering the question of capitalisms persistence not only helps to locate possible entry points for today’s political actions. It also provides us with the tools to identify socio-technological developments that could further fortify its economic and social dominance. Among those ideas that warrants thorough examination regarding its role in fortifying capitalisms dominance is Web3.

Web3 is a broadly applied term to the general idea of “fixing the web”. This is not least expressed by the numbering that symbolizes Web3s supposed superiority over the current web of social media and platforms known as Web 2.0. The advocates of Web3 identify several existing issues around Web 2.0, most prominently the dominance of few data harvesting corporations, and proclaim to fix them. The proposed fix: Taking back control over data from the digital landowners of Meta, Microsoft, or Google and giving it back to the users. It promises to achieve this by introducing what amounts to data ownership. In a nutshell Web3 represents the latest socio-technological attempt at propertisation of personal data.

Mute compulsation

To assess what effect the concepts of Web3 would have within the capitalist system it is helpful to recall how capitalism shapes human society in general. Søren Mau’s recent book titled “Mute Compulsion” is essential in this regard. Mau explains how the logic of capital tightens its stranglehold on life and society by constantly shaping the material conditions of social reproduction in a way that aligns it with capitalisms need for structured, steady, and controlled access to workers. In Marxist theory this process is referred to as subsumption and is portrayed as a formal and a material process. In early stages capitalism merely structures working conditions to its need. But this formal process eventually shapes the material conditions of not just economic but cultural and political life as well. This way capitalisms logic impresses itself on every aspect of society, transforming the material reality itself until human life and reproduction ultimately become conditional on submitting to this reality. To put it simple: Capitalism prevails because detaching from its structural framework comes at the price of individual survival.

This however isn’t simply the result of individual surrender to the bleak necessities of survival. It is enabled and aided by more subtle and oblique dynamics as well. In her book “Stolen” Grace Blakeley gives a vivid example of this. In her retelling of the rise of Thatcherism she calls back to a quote by Sandra Cavalcanti, former president of Brazil’s national housing bank: “Homeownership turns a worker into a conservative who defends the right to property.” This is a key element of neoliberal societal restructuring: As social reproduction is made depended on the capitalist flow, questioning its hegemony becomes self-damaging. Defending that very system – no matter how exploitative – turns into a matter of individual necessity and the idea of resistance eventually fades into the realm of unthinkability. The culmination of this development is what Mark Fisher famously called capitalist realism: A state of collective mind that is incapable of envisioning something else than the status quo. This condition is no longer dependent upon violence or propaganda. It has reached a self-sustaining perpetual nature, enforced by mute compulsion.

A considerable degree of anarchism

This process subsumes all political and cultural life under economic exploitation and reshapes it in the process. Starting no later than the 1990s the world wide web was affected by this as well. When the academic use of the early internet rescinded in favour of commercialised platforms the online world changed from a space of knowledge transfer to a space of privatised profit. National economic programs embraced this development early on and have pushed for a commercialisation of the digital world ever since. The European commission is an example in this area. It identified a data-driven transformation of the economy as a crucial goal of digital and legal policy in its 2017 communication about building a European data economy and stressed that data has become an essential resource for economic growth.

Opening the world wide web up to exploitation for profit started the process of capitalist subsumption of the digital. This process however has not yet reached a level of transformation that is comparable to the intensity of how the analogue reality of care, work, eat and sleep has been consumed by capitalism. There is still a considerable degree of anarchism within the online world that evades the logic of profit. That’s not to say capitalism hasn’t made progress tough. The academia funded servers and personal websites of Web 1.0 were replaced by the digital platforms of Web 2.0. Personal content became a commodity that no longer existed in a commonly shared digital world but was exploited by the owners of platforms like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, or Twitter. The driving force behind online activity changed from academic and personal purposes towards commercial motives.

This however did not change the nature of online content. What changed was not the work that went into publishing it. What changed was the environment where it was published. The platforms of Web 2.0 started to intertwine digital life with the rules and conditions of capitalism by literally incorporating our digital existence into privately owned content productions. Digital social and cultural life no longer exists for itself but serves as an attraction on platforms that monetize attention. The level of convenience these platforms were able to offer vastly outperformed the cumbersome blogs of the self-hosted Web 1.0 and replaced it by readily available tools for social interaction. As a result, it became gradually more difficult to maintain an online presence outside of these structures of profit oriented and market driven wealth extraction.

A full-surveillance radical-market society

Still, in most societies individuals can afford to ignore the internet and its commercial manifestations without endangering daily survival. Subsuming the digital world under the logic of capitalistic exploitation in a material way requires more. It requires a level of reliance on digital assets the digital world is currently lacking. It requires exclusive control over digital objects or in legal terms: Ownership over Property. Ownership allows for the privatisation of wealth and for excluding others from it. It creates the inequalities and dependencies capitalism runs on and moulds the world into a comfortably digestible field for economic consumption. As Eva von Redecker writes: Goods need to be propertised in order to be bounded, controllable and alienable enough for the market. Most aspects of our analogue life have been propertised and subjected to some form of ownership. But not all goods are framed in the form of property (yet). The digital world specificall has so far escaped attempts at subjugating it to a similar form of exclusive control.

This is where Web3 enters the stage.

The term “Web3” is attributed to Gavin Wood, one of the developers of the Ethereum blockchain. This connection is not accidental. Blockchain, a decades old database technology, is a key element of Web3. This kind of database has two major qualities: Data entries are immutable, and the database is managed without a central authority. Both attributes are praised as features but have immense drawbacks. Immutability clashes with the need for privacy as information can never be deleted once added to the chain. And blockchains special kind of decentralisation gives individuals little recourse in case of user mistakes or technical errors as there is no mediating authority that could settle disputes. Both features make a digital world running on blockchain the technological equivalent of a full-surveillance radical-market society.

Until today the only practical application for blockchain are speculative crypto assets like Bitcoin, where blockchain acts as the underlying ledger. Web3 wants more. It is attempting to give blockchain a purpose beyond recording transactions of gamblers. Instead, it suggests to record all personal interactions and attributes on blockchain. Every piece of content is to be represented by immutable digital records and assigned to an individual user. The online platforms build upon this technology would not necessarily look different from familiar Web 2.0 services but be underpinned by the concept of data ownership. In the minds of Web3 advocates every post, picture, tweet, like or comment would be under individual exclusive control. But Web3 is not only envisioning a propertised Web 2.0. In addition, it wants to create 3D environments accessed via virtual reality gear where all aspects of the material world are duplicated and everything, from virtual land to cars or houses, is exclusively and immutably represented by associated blockchain-recordings. Even the users themselves, represented by virtual avatars, are recreated as digital twins whose attributes, from limbs to hairstyle, are represented by digital records on the blockchain. Marketing departments took up the label “Metaverse” for these virtual recreations of reality.

Web3 and the material conditions of reproduction

Ultimately Web3 aims at not just recreating the analogue reality in a propertised digital world but proposes to blend them. Access to transportation, housing or food is made conditional of digital claims represented by Web3 assets and linked to digital blockchain ownership. These digital entitlements of our virtual twins are connected to our analogue selves and their physical needs by state-run digital identities. They link the blockchain-enabled data ownership of Web3 and the material conditions of reproduction.

Web3 of course presents ownership of digital, personal objects as an advantage and frames it as self-determination, sovereignty, or control. But this promise is poisoned. A central element of ownership besides exclusive control is the right to transfer property with the consequence that control is irretrievably lost. In the context of Web3, where social and cultural participation would become conditional on digital property, this would allow people to permanently trade away essential aspects of their digital lives to third parties. This trade of course would be subject to the same dynamics of inequality already know from the material world. History has shown that endowing individual activity with individual ownership rights creates a duplicitous freedom. While Web3 would endow the digital existence with an unknow level of transferability it does not change the economic conditions in which these new assets are distributed. Endowing parts of the digital twin with propertized qualities – as proposed by Web3 – would therefor sooner or later expose the digital body to commercial exploitation in the same manner as the analogue body already is.

The obvious parallel is the liberation of workers from feudal dependency. Their new found sovereignty led to significant segments of the population being forced to offer their freed labor on the market under precarious conditions as the means of production remained privately owned. And Web3 is proposing nothing to challenge the private ownership of the digital means of production. To the contrary: The new internet will belong to the same investors as the old one does, warned former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. In the end, the freedom of Web3 is not different from the freedom Engels described in the first chapter of “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, whose paraphrased words are equally fitting in the context of Web3:

“The ‘freedom from the old web’, now veritably accomplished, turned out to be, for the users, the freedom to sell their data, crushed under the overmastering competition of the large platforms and landlords of Web3, and thus, as far as the users were concerned, became ‘freedom from data ownership’.”

Looking at what Web3 proposes it is obvious that it is not just a new technological interpretation of familiar business models. The scope and depth of reliance on digital realities intertwines analogue and digital life in a way that truly subsumes virtual life under capitalisms logic. With material reality growing more and more depended on the integrity of the blockchain-enabled digital property individuals as well as society would have to submit to the reality that is created by Web3. And data ownership would eventually turn individuals into cyberlibertarians who defend the right to data property.

Web3 represents little more than the next step of capitalisms evolution. It is built upon propertisation of digital life and enabled by blockchain, a technology that dismantles privacy and social control. It is nothing but fitting that the Luddite tante drew parallels to humans most dark periods of exploitation when he titled his Web3 essay “The Third Web”.