Left Populism and Platform Capitalism

  • Nick Dyer-Witheford
Keywords: left populism, platform capitalism, digital networks, capitalism, socialism, populism


This paper contextualizes and analyses the policy proposals of new “left populisms” (Mouffe 2018) for the regulation and reform of the “platform capitalism” (Srnicek 2017) that increasingly organizes digital communication. The era of the 2008 crash and subsequent recession saw the emergence in North America and Europe of new left-wing electoral initiatives, either as new parties or fractions within older parties. These include, in the USA, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Democrats; in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party; in Spain, Podemos; in Germany, Die Linke; in France, La France Insoumise. While many of these groupings might be described as socialist, or democratic socialist, they often also distinguish themselves from older socialist or social democratic formations; so, for lack of a better term, we call them left populisms. Left populisms are connected in contradictory ways to the appearance of platform capitalism, a corporate model exemplified by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Uber, deploying proprietorial software as a launch-point for user activities accessing commodified or advertising-driven goods and services. The rise of left populism correlates with the ascent of platform capitalists. Left populist parties emerged from the anti-austerity movements (Occupy in the USA, the Indignados in Spain, student campus occupations in the UK) organized with the help of social media platforms. However, it is also the failures and scandals of platform capitalism have been important to left populism. Edward Snowden’s revelations of ubiquitous surveillance and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-Russian hacker imbroglio around the 2016 US election have fuelled a “techlash” against giant digital corporations that is now an important component of left populist sentiment. Drawing on policy documents, manifestos, speeches, position paper, this paper analyses the policy platforms in which left populist parties confront platform capitalism around issues of content regulation; concentration of ownership; the rights of digital workers; alternative ownership models; and proposals for a high-tech driven transition to “postcapitalism” (Mason 2016). It considers the similarities and difference between and within left populist parties on these issues; the extent of their departure from neoliberal policies; and their differences, and occasional erratic similarities, with right-wing populisms, such as that of Trump. It then reviews critiques of left populism made from Marxist and ecological anti-capitalist positions, with particular reference to technological issues. The paper concludes with a summary of the opportunities and problems for a left wing “data populism” (Morozov 2016) in the current political conjuncture.

Special Issue: Communicative Socialism/Digital Socialism