When Mark Fisher introduced his “Postcapitalist Desire” class to Apple’s Ridley Scott-directed “1984” Superbowl commercial in late 2016, he did so to pinpoint the moment that a new vision of the future was emerging.
That advert, he explains, would “seed the idea of many of the tropes that are now … standard in our imagining: the idea of top-down, bureaucratic control systems versus the dynamism of a kind of networked individual mindset.”
Epic Games — the company responsible for the insanely successful battle royale online multiplayer game Fortnite — has now lampooned that advert, protesting Apple’s attempts to make itself a market monopoly for micro-transactions.
The company are upset at Apple for trying to enforce usage of their platform. In an attempt to undermine Apple’s pushy tactics, the company began rewarding players with discounts when they made payments directly to them rather than via the Apple app store. Apple, in response, has deleted Fortnite from its platform, effectively deleting the game from millions of devices. Epic Games is now suing Apple.
It’s not a good look for Apple or platform capitalism more generally. Platform capitalism, as it was so called, now starts to look like a blip in the timeline. It’s throwing a tantrum when the new upstart starts taking swings at its exploitative rules and regulations. If platform capitalism is now for the off as a result, Epic Games is putting itself forward as the true innovator and representative for the next phase in capitalism’s late development.
It’s a very weird and oddly exciting state of affairs and Epic Games’ reference to Apple’s own advert is very fitting, perhaps in more ways than may have been intended. This is to say that, yes, whilst it is an interesting troll, it might also signify a further development in the late capitalist imaginary in its own right. At present, I’m not sure if that’s for better or for worse…
For Fisher, “all advertising … is a form of dreamwork — dreamwork, as Freud says, involves conflation, and a compressing, a condensing of different ideas together.” What Apple’s original “1984” advert does “is it condenses Cold War imagery … with dreariness [and the] bureaucratic submission of individuals” to a higher authoritarian power. Perhaps you can already tell where this is going: Apple, as far as Epic Games is concerned, has become the thing it once claimed itself to be the death of.
Fisher’s analysis of this advert, from Postcapitalist Desire, out next month, continues as follows:
Apple is positioning itself as an upstart, as colour intervening into this grey, dreary, bureaucratic world. Apple is new. It’s female, interestingly. It’s colour intervening in this grey world of bureaucratic monoliths where IBM becomes, in the advertising dreamwork, equated with the Soviet Union. This, then, is the new world that is about to break out of this monolithic, dreary, grey, boring control system. And that’s what happened! In a certain way, it was prophetic. It was more than prophetic; you could say it was hyperstitional. It helped to bring about the very thing which it was describing.
From my point of view, what I think is interesting about this [advert], then, is the way in which it suggests there is a problem of desire in terms of capital. The thing about the Cold War imagery — what it’s suggesting is there is … only desire for capitalism. The Communist world, like IBM, and the then dominant corporate capitalist world, is boring and dreary, and [Apple’s advert is] an objection to it! The new capitalist world won’t be like that. The new capitalist world will be about desire in a way that the Communist world won’t be.
Fortnite’s little in-game protest is a peculiar twist on this. Fisher made the point in his lecture that most of the students present weren’t old enough to remember the imagery associated with the Soviet Union. They would know it but only indirectly; which is to say its symbolism was legible but that’s not the same as something being recognisable within the context of their present cultural experiences. This was to a room full of students who were, at the very least, in their mid-20s or older. (28-year-old me was born on the day the Soviet Union was officially disbanded — some seven years after Apple’s advert was first aired — so Fisher’s comment is certainly true of my experience, or lack thereof.)
I wonder what percentage of Fortnite’s player base is able to read this hard-baked Cold War undercurrent into their favourite battle royale game? What will Apple make of it themselves? How effective will this ironically capitalist pastiche of Apple’s ironically capitalist pastiche of Orwell’s critique be in their dispute?
Personally, I think it is a telling reference for Epic Games to draw upon. The fact that the company has been positioning itself as the future of entertainment or “narrative” — as was the cry following the game’s “end” last year — or of computing and gaming more specifically may seem trivial since they’re just a games company and Apple is a technological behemoth, but to many Epic are the future. It is Epic Games, not Apple, that are changing the shape of things to come.
Apple has had a huge impact, of course, but their hype machine has run out of steam. To be honest, I’ve never not been cynical about their sleek and claustrophobic hardware and software so I’m biased, but they also clearly owned the last decade following the launch of the iPhone in 2007. They revolutionised how we communicate and interact with the world — giving rise to what Jodi Dean has called “communicative capitalism”. Epic Games, however, has been hot on their heels in terms of influence and they are increasingly a force to be reckoned with — if not financially, at least technologically. They are perfectly poised, then, to re-revolutionise the new world that Apple created. But are they part of a solution or just another problem?
I was intrigued by this conversation between Ben Vickers and David Rudnick on Twitter that discussed this. Rudnick takes position I would have taken: Fortnite is a huge revenue stream for a company that has found a great deal of early success as the games industry has been bent quite forcefully in favour of what Peter Frase has called “rentism”.
I like the term “rentism” a lot, if not what it represents. It speaks to a new form of capitalism that is solely “based on the extraction of rents rather than the accumulation of capital through commodity production”. This makes it similar to “neofeudalism” (or whatever neologism was doing the rounds a few months ago) but I think rentism is a better term because it encapsulates our present stasis in a way that is so quotidian as to be even more horrifying.
Neofeudalism is accurate in some ways — it’s clearly reactionary, like our present moment, in that it heralds a literal return to the dark ages — but rentism takes its name from something that is already here. It takes its name not from some apparently distant recess of history but from the very ground of contemporary existence in all of their mundanity: rent. The rent you pay on your house, your entertainment, your car, your bicycle, your utilities… Rentism is rent universalised; rent for everything. If this were to come into effect, as feels increasingly likely, it will have huge historical consequences. It is, in essence, the return of the negation of individual property; the ultimate failure of the negation of the negation; the full erasure of that tension that Marx saw as the starting point of socialism, whereby the expropriators will be expropriated.
If this is part of what Epic Games represents, it makes them seem like a wolf in sheep’s clothing rather than a bright star on the horizon. Ben Vickers, however, in response to Rudnick’s cynicism, shares this series of essays on the company that paints it in a very different light.
The series’ authors make the point that, whilst Fortnite is a big moneymaker for Epic, many of the company’s other assets — and they have an insane amount of them — are given away from free.
The most telling part of the authors’ analysis seems to be this section of the final essay which considers Epic Games’ intentions:
There is a way to be cynical of Epic’s strategy. Each new service and fee drop expands Epic’s influence over the technical roadmaps of the future and, in part, decides which companies can and cannot exist, which parts of the ecosystem will generate profits, and if they can and by how much.
However, this perspective is difficult to reconcile with the macro context of the gaming industry. Today, the industry generates roughly $120B per year in revenue (excluding hardware sales).
I’m not sure how much that stands up at present. The gaming industry feels increasingly less macro by the year and if its influence extends as far as the authors go on to predict it will, retaining this cynicism seems healthy. Their insistence that Epic CEO Tim Sweeney seems to be a pretty right-on dude also doesn’t impress me too much. Nevertheless, the authors continue:
It could be argued that Epic’s plan is more devious. In its famous antitrust case against Microsoft, the Department of Justice found the company had an internal strategy called “Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish.” Specifically, this involved Microsoft deploying industry-wide standards that would later prefer Microsoft-related products, and eventually disadvantage competing products. But were this Epic’s actual goal, it would make little sense for the company to zero-out pricing in these categories, versus just undercut them through lower prices and better offerings.
So how does one explain Epic’s strategy? What is the Epic Games Flywheel looking to achieve? Why is Epic spending billions to launch new businesses that remove or reduce all the value in that category — and without shifting the remainder to Epic’s own pockets?
The answer goes back to the gaming TAM (“Total Addressable Market”) of $120B. Sweeney believes that the most important segment of the gaming/entertainment ecosystem is the content creator. And, accordingly, the entire ecosystem benefits from making it easier for developers to make both a game and a profit, from driving a greater share of industry profits away from stores and infrastructure providers to these developers, and by breaking down the closed platforms of Microsoft, Sony, Valve, Windows, Steam, etc.
As a David versus Goliath story, it’s easy to root for Fortnite. Still, in recent weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about the cultural impact of rentism and now I’m curious as to what role Epic Games will play in it, especially considering the fact it is clearly going against most rentist trends right now. (Can you imagine a series of articles about the likes of Netflix or Spotify, or anyone for that matter, that insists on the company’s belief in a broader creative ecosystem that demonstrates a repeat disregard for profit?)
Epic Games is, arguably, looking five steps ahead of the competition. Whilst every other tech company exploits the new dominance of rent-to-access financial models, Epic seems to have its eye on the next phase of the cycle, when rentism — which they are no doubt profiting from in their own way — eventually gives way to a new kind of capitalism proper, rather than an atrophying of the present, where the glimmer of individual ownership returns, albeit in a new arena: the Metaverse.
It makes Epic Games an exciting prospect. Rentism, as far as I am concerned, is the bleakest future available to us. It’s a truly Sisyphean existence of endless drudgery in return for endless monthly payments. I reckon extinction sounds more palatable. The horror of rentism is also that, were it to establish itself absolutely, there’d be no way out — not unless we had a kind of technological revolution like the kind that led to the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the first place. The very idea of that kind of revolution has long been in crisis. My fear is we’d stay in this stasis forever. It would be the true end of history.
Any alternative to that is to be welcomed, but plenty of questions remain for Epic Games…
If, in its 1984 commercial, Apple was declaring that the new capitalist world is going to be about desire in a way that the Communist world wasn’t, what is Epic Games insinuating about a capitalist future under their particular MO? Whilst they may be a spanner in the works for an encroaching rentism, they nonetheless represent the continuation of the “networked individual mindset” that Apple first claimed to inaugurate.
Is cheering for Epic, then, a bit like cheering for Biden over Trump? Or perhaps Epic Games is the only true accelerationist force left in the world today? By rejecting capitalism’s attempts to stall itself and implement global rentism, they push late capitalism forwards a few more steps than it presently feels comfortable with — a few more steps towards its next mutation rather than its settling for a hegemonic mediocrity.
Epic Games do start to look like the heroes they are presenting themselves to be, preserving the kinds of sci-fi future we were previously always promised and taught to desire — the kind of future Apple themselves promised only to later betray it absolutely. The question is: can they deliver? And will we be ready to properly exploit the world they build for us?
Really interesting post! I mentioned to you before that I was trying to think-through the relationship between ‘rentism’ and financialization, since the rise of this neo-rentier structure (which, even in the time of Marx, was noticed as something contrary to the activities of the industrial capitalism, a sort of aberrant excrescence rupturing from the ‘productive’ economy) has taken place within the context of the ballooning hegemony of finance capital here in the ‘post-industrial’ world.
The heart of the structural linkage is a bit elusive still, but a few thoughts: first, we can think of the financial capitalist as the manager of the rentier’s wealth (along these lines, the French Marxist economists Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy have posed the possibility of a ‘managerial’ — or neo-managerial — society coming into view, where the wealth manager runs ahead of the capitalist themselves as the governors of the mode of production). The second is emphasis on the figure of the shareholder, which is the common name used by rentiers to describe themselves; William Lazonick has described what he calls the “ideology of shareholder maximization” to describe a new corporate governing structure, which he links to the expanding financial activities of ostensibly non-financial firms (financial expansion being a ‘short-cut’ to profitability without the cumbersome work of investing in productive ventures). The third is the focus on market capitalization, which has been generated within the context of financialization. Many firms are able to expand their market cap without investing in physical materials by recoursing to the rentist model — think Netflix renting server space from Amazon.
The fourth is the general trend towards dematerialization, which follows a transition from an economy based on M-C-M’ to one based on M-M’. The commodity, as a sensuous object, is eclipsed by spectral electronic flow as the source of profitability (the new commodities of data or the tangled webs of financial instruments). Rentism also proceeds through the undermining of the classical image of the commodity, either through removing the status of ownership of the commodity and/or through its own dematerialization (like Disney exacting a monopoly on media, then eliminating that media’s physical status to drive consumers towards their subscription service). And this is all dependent on the ‘information revolution’, which has been intertwined with finance from the start (like the finance markets of the 70s being dependent on brand new computer technologies to synchronize activities across time zones, or finance capital being the backbone of Silicon Valley capitalism from the 2000s onwards).
It’s interesting to think this in relation to what forms of capitalism might be coming in the future — and your reference to the “metaverse” seems very apt. The wiki page you link says that the metaverse is a “collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet”… it is precisely this that China is currently trying to build, and is at the heart of Huawei’s 5G push (I would a blog post on this a while back: https://reciprocalcontradiction.home.blog/2020/03/28/tactile-power/). In Huawei’s corporate lit, 5G will enable the creation of “Internet 2030”, a key part of which is the notion of the “tactile internet” — fully integrated VR environments in which users can experience the full range of sensory encounter. “We will advance from virtual, augmented, and mixed, immersive realities to a holographically rendered world in which communication networks will make distances immaterial”.
One can imagine how this may entrench rentism: who exactly will own the new digital spaces which will become a constituent aspect of future life? But there’s another side as well. China’s strategy is use Internet 2030 to inaugurate a new wave of industrial productivity, particularly in the fields of machine learning, industrial applications of the internet of things, and automation. The push to expand China’s markets through things like the Belt and Road are likely bound up in the expectation of a productive explosion — and this is also at the center of the rising geopolitical tensions between the US and China, which has taken Huawei as a one of the primary battlegrounds.
But this is also a picture of two different futures of capitalism. The US-led post-industrial mode, which its emphasis on financialization, rents and services, has been a consistent flight away from productive sectors, which on the one hand has benefited a narrow class now tapping into super-profits, but on the other has immiserated the vast majority of people. A drive towards renewing a productive economy realized at a higher stage, by contrast, is one looking to avoid this listless spiral of stagnation.
The China model has similarities and breaks with rentism, and it also has similarities and breaks with the sort of model that Epic Games seems to be staking out in your descriptions here (and in all likelihood the coming decades, assuming things *somehow* change, will be characterized by different, though probably overlapping, forms of life and economic behavior). So there might be an interesting series of different possibilities taking shape.