Evil Intermediation Platforms

From the Series: Evil Infrastructures

Photo by Franck V..

A political-cultural perspective on the sociology of digital intermediation platforms interrogates what a particular set of social arrangements implies about relations of production. This perspective asks: How do digital intermediation platforms contribute to legitimizing contemporary capitalism, and potentially to redesigning processes of domination? How are these platforms used as a justification register for capitalist exploitation—how, for example, do they invoke the notion of the digital commons for ideological purposes, in the sense of Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s (2006) “economies of worth”? Is a specific model—for example, platform cooperativism—an antidote to those “evil” platforms or yet another iteration?

The proliferation of digital intermediation platforms occurs in diverse fields: cultural crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, content aggregation, advertising and marketing, online dating, carpooling, ethical commerce, and alternative finance. Distribution, information, and transaction occur in multisided markets, with tech giants capturing positive externalities even as they may not provide content, goods, or services of their own. Platforms play on all tables: dead labor, intellectual labor, manual labor, and of course audience labor. They perform activities regarding the organization of labor on three levels: first, inside their own structures, filtering and editing content; second, linking projects to external partners, often resorting to the longstanding exploitation of cultural labor in the process; and third, stimulating audience labor on external networks. Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing platforms also produce ideological discourses: they promote their short-term interests and contribute to the illusion of modified relations of production or an inverted production cycle. Users are not only moderated and stimulated, but they are also educated through a profusion of communication kits and induced into “micro-targeted” or mainstream commercial partnerships. In this way, users must become “part of an innovative, creative family,” as the CEO of crowdfunding platform Kisskissbankbank, Vincent Ricordeau, has claimed.

This rapid expansion of the digital economy is born out of varieties of capitalism across vast-ranging national institutional frameworks, state-labor relations, re-regulations, privatizations, cross-class relations, and diverse political systems (Hancké, Rhodes, and Thatcher 2009). And yet, overall, the digital economy seems to dance to the rhythm of two predatory forms of capitalist expansion: what Chris Harman (2010) calls “zombie capitalism” and Phil Graham (2006) calls “hypercapitalism.” Zombie capitalism invokes a Marxist framework:

Once all capitalists introduce these techniques the value of the goods falls until it corresponds to the average amount of labor needed to produce them under the new techniques. The additional profit disappears—and if more means of production are used to get access to the new techniques, the rate of profit falls. . . . If some capitalists are to make an adequate profit it can only be at the expense of other capitalists who are driven out of business. The drive to accumulate leads inevitably to crises. And the greater the scale of past accumulation, the deeper the crises will be. (Harman 2010, 72)

Hypercapitalism, on the other hand, refers to ever-extending processes of commodification:

The social process in a knowledge economy, because of its focus on commodifying the products of language and thought, includes the entire network of activities and artifacts through which individuals and societies reproduce themselves at every level: materially, spiritually, socially, relationally intellectually, technologically. (Graham 2006, 69)

Connecting cognitive frames, social relations, and organizational factors can elaborate on how the crisis of accumulation and hypercapitalist expansion affects socioeconomic structures within the context of digital intermediation platforms. In our work, we take a critical political-economic approach in order to analyze the role these platforms play within (or above) production and capitalization cycles (Matthews, forthcoming). We use cyberconflict theory to map the sociopolitical, ideological, and organizational environment these platforms operate within, as well as the resistances they face (Karatzogianni 2015). By analyzing the views of twenty-three actors we interviewed in Barcelona, Paris, and Berlin between November 2015 and September 2016, we draw empirical attention to the rhetorical foundations of the so-called sharing economy and the effect of different strains of ideology on the formation of diverse models, organizations, and modes of production in the network economy.

Such an inquiry comprehends the subtle features of anticapitalist discourse to be an ideological spectrum, ranging from commons-oriented to peer-to-peer, decentralized, and platform-cooperativist, which influences activist, corporatist, and statist rhetoric about the digital economy. There is evidence to support the view that actors behind the various intermediation platforms are conditioned by this spectrum of collaborative, shared ideology, and that structures are produced in direct relation to specific ideological frames. In our research so far, we have found that one particular rhetorical foundation is tied to the notion of the commons. Across the three geographical settings the commons features centrally, despite differing configurations of commons capital, peer-to-peer value, and commons-oriented paradigms. The understanding and practice of the commons directly affects decisions about governance, business models, and labor conditions, and, critically, it determines how productive, commodity, and money capital circulate in specific organizational structures, irrespective of traditional varieties of capitalism.

Platform cooperativism is one of many current efforts to create alternative productive structures. It proposes cloning the technology of gig economy giants, developing a model of collective ownership and management, and reframing ideas of innovation such that they benefit more than just the few. It remains to be seen if such a model is effective enough to overcome the exploitative character of the sharing economy that has thus far been employed to sustain a capitalist order in crisis.


Boltanski, Luc, and Laurent Thévenot. 2006. On Justification: Economies of Worth. Translated by Catherine Porter. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Originally published in 1991.

Graham, Phil. 2006. Hypercapitalism: New Media, Language and Social Perceptions of Value. New York: Peter Lang.

Hancké, Bob, Martin Rhodes, and Mark Thatcher. “Beyond Varieties of Capitalism.” In Debating Varieties of Capitalism: A Reader, edited by Bob Hancké, 273–300. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harman, Chris. 2010. Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Karatzogianni, Athina. 2015. Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism, 1994–2014: The Rise and Spread of Hacktivism and Cyberconflict. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Matthews, Jacob. Forthcoming. “Beyond ‘Collaborative Economy’ Discourse: Present, Past and Potential of Digital Intermediation Platforms.” In The Creative Industries and Collaborative Production, edited by James Graham. London: University of Westminster Press.