What are some troubling unsolved mysteries

Data economy

A ghost is around (not only) in Europe, it is the ghost of digital capitalism. And as befits today, it comes in many forms and colors: as information capitalism, data capitalism, platform capitalism, surveillance capitalism, or cognitive capitalism. There are now many of the digital capitalisms, but they all indicate something similar: We are witnesses to fundamental changes. This is exactly what leads me to a troubling question: is it still capitalism at all?

By "unsettling" I do not mean the same unrest that the authors of the various descriptions of digital capitalism get into. My aim is not to show that the new, digital variety of capitalism is worse than any previous one. Rather, I am concerned about capitalism itself. I put my hand on its shoulder, as it were, and quietly ask: "Are you all right, capitalism?" Because while many authors identify a further radicalization of capitalism in the digital version, I tend to have the opposite feeling. I think capitalism is not doing well in the digital world. I therefore want to ask more fundamentally whether capitalism in its digital way of playing still meets the criteria with which we describe this system of economic activity and the organization of society.

There are different definitions of capitalism, but they all have a more or less common core. Accordingly, capitalism fulfills the following five criteria: It is characterized by the antagonism between capital and labor (at least with Marx), by the control of the economy by the market (neoclassical definition), by private ownership of the means of production, the predominance of a property order and the principle of Accumulation (or also: of growth). In the following I will examine how it behaves in the digital world with these criteria.


Let us start with the obvious: private ownership of the means of production, "capital". A lot has happened here thanks to digitization. In Marx's time, the means of production were primarily land, buildings, machines, and perhaps vehicles. To illustrate how much the essence of capital has changed as a result of digitization, one only needs to consider the following: Uber, the largest taxi company in the world, has no vehicles. Alibaba, the world's most valuable retailer, does not have its own inventory. Airbnb, the world's largest accommodation provider, does not own any real estate.

The economists Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake examined this connection more systematically in their book "Capitalism Without Capital". The subtitle - "The Rise of the Intangible Economy" - already indicates that capital has not really disappeared. [1] It just dematerialized. In addition to the material capital goods that Marx was already familiar with, software, databases, design, brands, advanced training and other intangible, intangible values ​​were added at some point. And they didn't just add to it. In the US, UK and Sweden, investment in intangibles has long outstripped investment in tangible assets. 84 percent of the values ​​of the 500 largest listed US companies are already intangible. [2] The digital industry is a pioneer and driver of development here.

"Material, immaterial, what difference does that make?" One can ask now. There are four systemic differences that Haskel and Westlake work out: First, intangible goods are "sunk costs" (sunk cost), that is, capital invested in intangible assets is difficult to resell. Second, there are often transference effects, intangible assets "spill over" (spill-over). That means it is difficult to keep information - and these are always intangible goods - to yourself. Third, intangible goods can be scaled (scalable): Once produced, an intangible good can be used anywhere without limitation and at no additional cost. Fourth, intangible goods are synergetic (synergy): They often only result in new products in combination with other intangible goods, or they repeatedly lead to new applications.

The most exciting thing is the spill-over-Effect. We know him wherever copyrighted works are exchanged on the Internet. For industrial producers, however, it can also simply mean that the competition is copying the manufacture of a product or copying software. Some - but by no means all - intangible investments can be legally protected. And here we only come back into the wake of our capitalism criterion. Only intangible investments that can be protected through copyrights, patents or trademark registration can even be considered private property and appear as assets in the balance sheets. But even these forms of private property, that is, intellectual property, are highly questionable in terms of their property structure; Basically, it is a matter of pure monopoly exploitation rights, [3] or, to put it bluntly, claims of property.