Book review: "Technofeudalism - What Killed Capitalism" by Yanis Varoufakis

Books are machines for changing people's minds.

"Hope you read this one fast," said the librarian, "I'm next on the waitlist for it." What does it feel like to have your mind changed by "Technofeudalism"? Does the machine work at all?

It does, although you may not enjoy parts of the process.

Father and son

The first thing you may notice about this book is the main idea behind its composition: the narrative is addressed to a particular person. This is a trick which worked for Varoufakis in the past, when he wrote a book about the weird breakages of capitalism, addressing it to his daughter. This one is a long, polemical letter to the author's father.

It's about capitalism, again, but by virtue of placing it in something like a dialogue, Varoufakis pulls off a few elegant gestures in one fell swoop. First, it "deformalizes" the intended structure of the book - "Technofeudalism" sheds its textbook skin and becomes something a tiny bit more personal. This means the second change is logical: the tone is more conversational, and I was often thankful to be eavesdropping on something less heavy than a lecture - some dialogue, perhaps, through a suddenly non-existent fourth wall.

The final trick comes courtesy of Varoufakis' father's rich history. Without spoiling the discoveries too much - it helps the book immensely that it has so many stories to relate to, so many episodes to recall, and a couple of key questions to keep coming back to. And it helps, too, that the two men seem, throughout the years, to appreciate the bitter ironies of how the world turns out all around them.

"What killed capitalism"

The above is "Technofeudalism's" subtitle. If you were hoping for a whodunnit, then the title page pretty much gives the game away, sorry. But do read on. The story of the death, as told by Varoufakis, is infuriatingly interesting.

And the man should know a thing or two about killing capitalism. As a professor of economics, and Greece's finance minister for a few "InTeReStInG" moments, he witnessed many of capitalism's deaths, metamorphoses, mutations. Sometimes he must have been in the room where these happened. Sometimes, one imagines, helping to hold the writhing body down.

I was grateful for this part of the book. The story you get about capitalism's ups and downs very much depends on who you ask. Getting Varoufakis' account is valuable. Not just because of his ability to tell the tale from beyond Wall Street's powerful echo chamber (I could definitely relate to the "funny money" history of 1980s Europe). Mainly because of what the author continues to believe in, when it comes to global debt, austerity and repercussions of financial crises.

"Technofeudalism" does well to tell this part of the story. It was important, I felt, to see the succession of body blows dealt to capitalism, and to see it from a perspective of a man who won't necessarily be rushing to help the bloodied lad keep on its feet as it staggers across the Monopoly board of the planet.

"Folks don't even own themselves, payin' mental rent to corporate presidents"

I couldn't stop thinking of Public Enemy's lyrics as I read the description of technofeudalism in Varoufakis' book. For the author, it's important to start seeing capitalism for what it is: a dying veneer, hiding a completely different set of organisms which have grown beneath it.

"Haven't we been here before?" I wondered around this part of the book. Not quite, according to the author: we've seen Wall Street go apeshit before, and we've seen governments giving up all economic sanity to save the banks. This time, Varoufakis believes, is different.

Again, I shan't spoil the exploration for you - this is another important part of the book, and well worth the read. In brief, and to tease a few things out: while going through the middle part of this story, I realized how far detached from the usual capitalist orbits the Big Tech giants have become - and how "profit" is no longer a thing which can stop their game - and how our everyday existence helps speed up their ascent to technofeudalism.

If you go through these pages without even once feeling an urge to take a meat tenderizer to your Alexa, then there's no hope for you. Or is there?

Hope (if you're a finance minister) and homework (for everyone else)

A book is a machine that gets your mind changed.

"Technofeudalism" made many things clear for me. Varoufakis work was useful when it came to describing "what killed capitalism" - the chalk outline around the body clearly defined, the autopsy complete, the cancerous hosts labeled with some bravado.

This, I thought, turning the page, is the good part now. This is where the machine helps me put my newly changed mind in gear.

Well. Uh.

In hindsight, there's not much one can blame Varoufakis for. Your utopia will always smell of you, and nobody else. Varoufakis' answer to the perennial "What Is To Be Done?" is twofold. The dominant part is where he describes the economic and political changes at a macro- and corporate level. The economic and political theory checks out, because Varoufakis was an economist, is a politician, and deals in theories.

The second bit - the one which would appeal to "Technofeudalism" readers who aren't lapsed finance ministers - is flaky. The author himself admits that he's not sure how some of these ideas would work, or if they'd be workable at all.

It's pointless, perhaps, to expect a checklist at the end of a book like that. But you'd want this nonetheless. Ironically, tech is to blame: you'd want your listicle by now, your TED talk moment, your Four Hour Revolution. You'd want to do something - anything. If you're not into economics, Varoufakis' book doesn't ask much of you at this point.

It's a waste of good anger. Or maybe a call to start building your own answers. You decide.

TL,DR; Read "Technofeudalism" and get your own mind changed

A book is a machine that changes your mind.

So is your laptop, and your tablet, and your phone, and every app on your phone.

"Read this one quick," said the librarian. I spent this week's evenings with "Technofeudalism" instead of my screens. It helped me see tech in a new way, and helped me trace how my tech got to be the way it is. It also helped me begin to see how we got to be the way we are with tech.

Technofeudalism is alive and kicking, says Varoufakis. It's now wearing the dead capitalism's hide to trick us. And it's a bigger, tougher beast to slay.

Read this book.

Then start looking for the weak spots closest to you.

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