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(Infra)structural Discontinuity: Capital, Labour, and Technological Change

Technological change is often be viewed as an exogenous force, a deus ex machina “outside the domain of economic theory” (Schumpeter 1911:11), or an endogenous force, subordinate to the institutional régulation of capitalism (Gentili et al. 2020; Montalban et al. 2019; Spencer 2017). Drawing on neo-Schumpeterian and régulation theory, this paper sublates these antithetical positions to form an alternative approach that re-examines the grounds for the paradigm shift variously named the “second machine age” (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014), “rise of the robots” (Ford 2015), “fourth industrial revolution” (Schwab 2017), “industry 4.0” (Davies 2015), and “platform capitalism” (Srnicek 2016), among others. This paper draws on the notion of “structural discontinuity” (Cetrulo and Nuvolari 2019; Nuvolari 2019) in neo-Schumpeterian business cycle theory, which highlights technological change between economic paradigms, as well as the concept of a “mode of social régulation” (MSR) in régulation theory (Boyer and Saillard 2002a; Dunford 1990), which emphasises institutional/structural change in capitalism. This synthesis between the neo-Schumpeterian and régulationist approaches results in the concept of (infra)structural discontinuity, defined as the convergence of new general purpose technologies (GPTs), infrastructures and institutional logics, which constitutes a new MSR of capitalism.

While scepticism persists (Cetrulo and Nuvolari 2019; Morgan 2019; Wajcman 2017), there is growing empirical evidence of (infra)structural discontinuity. The extent and nature of such change remains an open debate fragmented across disciplines. Critical geographers have engaged with themes related to digitalisation (Fuchs 2020), the platformisation of work (Sadowski 2020; van Doorn et al. 2021), digital value networks (Howson et al. forthcoming), and cloud infrastructure (Narayan 2022), among others. However, questions specifically focused on technological and institutional change have been largely abandoned by the discipline (Webber [1987] was the last piece on technological change in this journal), even with regard to Marxist theories of régulation (see, for example, Herod 2018; Peck and Tickell 2012). Research on technological paradigms does not sufficiently address platform technologies such as AI and datafication (Bodrožić and Adler 2018; Perez 2010), while geographies of technological development (Buarque et al. 2020; Haefner and Sternberg 2020) and studies of technological changes in the labour process (Cetrulo and Nuvolari 2019; Holtgrewe 2014; Moore et al. 2017) ask different questions.

Neo-Schumpeterian theory centres around concepts of technological innovation, “creative destruction”, and Kondratiev’s “long-wave” cycles of economic growth (Freeman and Louçã 2002; Perez 2002). This approach centres technological (infra)structures as a key institutional pillar—something lacking in régulation theory. Through combining the above theories with an analysis of recent OECD data, this paper supports and builds on Montalban et al.’s (2019) insights on an emergent platform MSR. Through periodising (infra)structural change, this paper argues that the previous era—referred to as the fifth techno-economic paradigm by neo-Schumpeterians (Perez 2002) and post-Fordist MSR by régulationists—has evolved from a “dysfunctional accumulation regime” (Tickell and Peck 1992; Vidal 2013) to a new era (see Haefner and Sternberg 2020), the platform MSR (Montalban et al. 2019). The turning point for the discontinuity can be marked by the rapid diffusion of a cluster of AI and data-driven general purpose technologies (GPTs) that enable unprecedented mobile connectivity and automation through platform and venture capitalist (VC) infrastructures (Cooiman 2021) and the institutional changes that have accompanied them.

In synthesising neo-Schumpeterian insights with those from régulation theory, this paper makes a theoretical contribution to understanding (infra)structural discontinuity in capitalism as well as provides political insights into evolving systems of exploitation. Incorporating an analysis of the RA avoids a technological determinist analysis by recognising the dialectical tension between established and emergent techno-economic paradigms. Through synthesising institutionalist and techno-economic methodologies, I highlight the historical juncture during which post-crisis investment and new technological infrastructure catalysed platformisation. The post-Fordist ascendency of neoliberalism under the Washington Consensus, with its financialised RA and “flexible” subcontracted organisational models has been eclipsed by a nationally dis-embedded yet increasingly monopolist platform model of organisation. Accompanying the institutional shifts is a change in the RA, which has become increasingly reliant on rent extraction through intangible assets. The infrastructures of capital and labour are becoming increasingly virtual, private, and datafied.

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