Book Review: Techno-feudalism: What Killed Capitalism

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In his latest book Yanis Varoufakis, economist and former Greek Minister of Finance, clutches at clouds as he proclaims the end of capitalism and its replacement by so-called “techno-feudalism.” Varoufakis argues that our present era represents an historical backslide to the time of lords, vassals and serfs. Only this time around, fiefdoms are digital. Move over capitalists, feudalism’s back with a TikTok twist!

Since the book’s publication in 2023, Varoufakis has launched a relentless marketing campaign to promote this idea, targeting establishment platforms such as Fortune, Wired and the National Press Club of Australia. Reviews in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and ABC show that the book has generated considerable buzz online. However, despite the polished marketing and hype, Varoufakis’s argument is muddled and fails to convince.

Under the “techno-feudal” setup, according to Varoufakis, capitalists and workers are now at the mercy of “cloudalists,” represented by the likes of Jeff Besos and Mark Zuckerberg. These new digital overlords, who rose to power as a result of internet privatisation and central bank shenanigans, now rule over cloud-based fiefdoms, allowing for unprecedented control over our labour and attention. Under this regime, today’s workers are “cloud proles,” while his term “cloud serf” refers essentially to any smartphone owner. As cloud proles, we’re subjected to algorithmic management through apps like Uber. As “cloud serfs” — the most absurd category in the book — we unwittingly expand the system with every swipe and click, generating a data profile that can be harvested and sold to advertisers. Users of apps like TikTok, we are told, are comparable to serfs tilling the land on mediaeval estates.

The crux of the argument is that capitalist dynamics are now taken over by the logic of cloud capital, and capitalist profits are syphoned off as rent to owners of large digital platforms. The claim is that, because capitalist firms pay rent to sell their goods on Amazon, this is analogous to mediaeval fiefdoms, where extraction through ground rent was the prevailing form of social domination. Under mediaeval feudalism, land-bound serfs were compelled to work a number of days on the lords’ fields in exchange for protection. Beyond the assertion that companies like Amazon function like a feudal estates, Varoufakis neglects to elaborate on the specific production processes and legal relations that defined historical feudalism. He doesn’t mention that serfs were bound by oath to feudal lords, and therefore not free to leave their manorial estate under threat of violent repression. Varoufakis’ argument is fundamentally ahistorical: in drawing an analogy between contemporary capitalism and historical feudalism, he disregards the concrete realities of both eras in favour of sweeping generalities.

Varoufakis rose to prominence during his tenure as Finance Minister for the left-populist Syriza party — lasting from January to July 2015 — in the throes of the Greek national debt crisis. He currently serves as the parliamentary leader of MeRA25, the Greek political party affiliate of the populist DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025), which advocates for banking reform and a Europe-wide Green New Deal. In addresses to the capitalist press and think tanks, Yanis Varoufakis often labels himself an “erratic Marxist.” This self-identification seems to enable him to selectively draw from Marx’s concepts throughout the book, such as surplus value, without embracing their political implications and revolutionary content.

Varoufakis’ answer to techno-feudalism is a “cloud rebellion,” which he envisions as an alliance between “cloud serfs” and “cloud proles.” He imagines a “cloud mobilisation,” whereby cloud rebels would coordinate consumer boycotts and acts of digital sabotage by uploading viruses to the cloud. This amounts to an effort to obscure the real productive relationships that generate surplus value in the first place—namely, the exploitation of labour by capitalists.

For Marxists, surplus value refers to the value created by workers during the production process, over and above their wages. Essentially, surplus value is unpaid labour. Capitalists’ insatiable greed for surplus value is the driving force behind production. It pushes the accumulation of more and more buildings, factories, mines and IT infrastructure as well as the reduction in wages, working conditions and the increasing intensity of work. Marx emphasised that once generated in production, surplus value takes the monetary forms of profit, rent, and interest. In other words, the trough of unpaid labour, once produced, is fed upon by different sectors of the ruling class (think bankers, capitalists, landlords and other rent-seekers).

Varoufakis’ entire framework focuses only on the forms of reallocating surplus value, a category specific to capitalism, rather than the form of its production. He therefore fails to demonstrate that so-called “techno-feudalism” in any way represents a new era of exploitation distinct from capitalism.

Marx points out in his book, Capital, that extraction under the corvee system — a type of forced labour which prevailed under feudalism — was distinctly different from capitalist exploitation. Under the corvee, labourers were compelled to leave their fields and work on the lord’s land for a set number of days. Under feudalism, therefore, the extraction of unpaid labour took place in distinct zones of time and space and was apparent to all. By contrast, exploitation under capitalism is veiled by market relations: the payment of wages disguises the extraction of surplus labour giving rise to false notions around the origin of profit. Varoufakis’ notion of “cloud-capital” reads as an attempt to further obscure the reality of capitalist exploitation.

While it is clear that capitalism today looks very different from Marx’s time, its form of exploitation remains very much intact and prevails worldwide. To use Marx’s language in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism constantly revolutionises the means of production. In other words, technological revolution is in capitalism’s DNA. Though technology has evolved significantly since the era of steam-powered machinery to today’s era of microprocessors, and the composition of the working class has shifted, with the inclusion of IT workers alongside factory workers, the fundamental drive of capitalist accumulation continues.

Varoufakis attempts to turn Marx upside down by declaring that capitalism has already buried itself in a digital grave. Marx’s analysis shows, however, that capitalism creates its own gravediggers — the international working class. In casting the “cloudalists” as the true enemy, Varoufakis’ ahistorical argument suggests a common interest between the capitalists and the workers they exploit. However, a clear-eyed analysis reveals otherwise. The task of the international working class and oppressed peoples remains: to overthrow capital in all its forms.

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