Technopolitics in a Nutshell: Commented Reading List on Key Categories

Wind energey in the East of Austria
Wind energy in the flatlands of Eastern Austria

This article presents in overview form some of the key categories of Technopolitics together with essential reading. Technopolitics is a project that has began as a collaboration between Brian Holmes and me on these pages in 2010. Since 2011 a Technopolitics working group exists in Vienna. There is a lot of additional material which you can find spread out over Thenextlayer, so I thought for newcomers its time to collect a few basic references.

Techno-economic Paradigms

The English economist Chris Freeman, together with collaborators such as Luc Soete and Carlota Perez, formed the socalled "technological innovation school" in economics. They believed that the industrial revolution has not played itself out in one long continuous development from the 1750s till now, but has seen successive stages of development, so called techno-economic paradigms, divided by interstitial periods, times of crisis or rupture. According to this school, there have been five distinct techno-economic paradigms since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Those paradigms are often based on pairs of "leading technologies", combining heavy technologies in energy and raw materials production with communication media such as the telegraph or radio. A pair of leading technologies differs from other technologies by having the power to reshape and remodel not only a specific branch of industry but all industries. Examples are steam and the railway, electricity and steel, the mass production of cars and oil and now PCs and the internet.

Freeman, Christopher, and Luc Soete. 1997. The Economics of Industrial Innovation. 3rd revised. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

Techno-economic paradigms are more than just technologies. The power that accrues to the paradigm is the result of the combination of a technological advantage with new ways of organisation and new ways of thinking. Techno-economic paradigms form a mental map, a best practice model, which is also the reason why they need a certain time do unfold, according to the Venezuelan economist Carlota Perez. She has added important specifications to the concept of Chris Freeman and Luc Soete, the notion of the Big Bang ( the start of a paradigm), the concept of stages within a certain paradigm and the notion of the double paradigm.

Perez suggests that there is a distinct moment when a new paradigm begins. This is usually a new invention or mode of production, such as Henry Ford's assembly line. At the moment of the Big Bang this happens usually without being immediately registered as that world changing event. Only avant-gardes such as inventor-technologists, financiers (venture capitalists) and artists recognise the capacity of the event to shape the future. This is because the new paradigm initially develops inside the old one. The world does not change with the one wave of a magic wand. When Henry Ford switched on the assembly line, the leading paradigm was still electricity and steel. As Perez shows, paradigms, after the respective initial Big Bang, go through a phase of rapid expansion during which only avant-gardes understand their importance. Yet once their growth reaches critical mass, society at large follows, and the new techniques become mainstream. This usually takes almost a generation, 20 to 30 years, till everyone has learned the new ways of doing things. Once a paradigm has become recognised and fully established, however, it delivers diminishing returns in terms of profit. It looses some of its power to reshape the world, at first hardly noticeable. During, first maturity, then saturation phase of a paradigm, the new paradigm grows inside the old one.

In the late 1960s, early 1970s the paradigm reaching saturation was the paradigm of mass production of cars and other consumer products, together with oil and nuclear as power sources and television as the leading medium. In 1971 the Big Bang of the information society happened, in the shape of the first microprocessor (a computer on a chip) made by Intel. However, it would take another 25 years till the advent of the next fully fledged techno-ecnomic paradigm, informationalism.

2Perez, Carlota. 2002. Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing

3Perez, Carlota. 2009. “Technological Revolutions and Techno-Economic Paradigms.” Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics (20).

Kondratiev Waves or Long Cycles

The rhythm of techno-economic paradigms appears to follow the so called Kondratiev waves, after Nikolai Kondratiev (1925) who, building on earlier work by Van Gelderen (1913), observed that over the last 250 years there were long economic cycles - periods of sustained growth and periods of long declines - which lasted 25 years each and formed cycles of approximately 50 years (sometimes 40, sometimes 60) together. There is no need to study the original text thanks to this comprehensive study:


Publication of Kondratiev's work in the 1920s triggered a rush of related works. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter developed a theory of non-linear change, whose core ideas have later become known as 'creative disruption'. The ground-breaking earlier work, however, is contained in:

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1939. Business Cycles; a Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process,. New York; London: McGraw-Hill Book Company, inc.

Another keen reader of Kondratiev's work was Leon Trotzky who insisted on the social and political causes of the long cycles, not vice versa. Trotzky was adamant that wars, revolutions and catastrophes did not obey the regularity of the 50 year cycles and that sometimes a war could trigger a new cycle. Trotzky's riposte to Kondratiev has been summarised by the economist Ernest Mandel in Late Capitalism (1975). Mandel's work is interesting in its own right, since it contains important concepts such as that of a Keynesian war economy (see below).

Mandel, Ernest. 1978. Late Capitalism. London: Verso.

Techno-political Paradigms and World Systems Theory

What Trotzky's critique of Kondratiev and several other scholars show is that techno-economic paradigms do not exist in a political vacuum. We therefore usually speak of techno-political paradigms, not just techno-economic ones. The economic thought and action of an era is often tightly linked to the geopolitical situation. Leading pairs of technologies usually form within the hegemonic centre or core of the political world system and are picked up and imitated by subordinate states and rivals. The theory of techno-economic paradigms has thus to be supplemented by world systems analysis. This strand of theory has been pioneered by Immanuel Wallerstein.

Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice. 2004. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

A recent work, which is highly relevant for the current era, is by Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver.

Arrighi, Giovanni, and Beverly J. Silver. 1999. Chaos And Governance in the Modern World System. Minneapolis Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.

Fordism Keynesianism

The first decades after the Second World War, was characterised first by a long postwar boom, followed by a period of crises in the 1970s, marked by two so called oil shocks, which were actually political events. This expansionary phase from 1945 to 1973 constituted a social system based on mass production and mass consumption for which the French economist Michel Aglietta popularised the term Fordism (Aglietta 1979). Fordism was first used by Antonio Gramsci in an article called "Americanism and Fordism" (Gramsci 1971, pp.277-318). Gramsci asked if the system of mass production introduced by Henry Ford at his car factory in Highland Park since 1913 and the impact it had on Europe after WWI merited the use of this term to signify a new historical epoch. Aglietta confirmed Gramsci's anticipation yet showed that to speak of Fordism as an epoch become possible only in the decades after WWII.

Aglietta's book, which is the most widely read of a school called Regulation Theory, supplies us with several core concepts. First of all, Aglietta explains that finding a balance between investment in fixed capital for production of capital goods (Marx' Department 1) and fixed capital for production of consumer goods (D2) was not a foregone conclusion. The first boom of the Fordist technology in the USA in the 1920s had led to a severe crisis because of the lack of purchasing power of the working classes. There needed to be a state mediated form of balancing out the different sectors for which Aglietta and other Regulation Theorists have the slightly counter-intuitive term 'regulation' (but this has nothing to do with what we usually understand by that term). Aglietta maintains that regulation occurs through so called 'structural forms' which bind economic actors together. The most important structural form during the era of Fordism proper from 1945 to 1973 was the recognition of trade unions and collective bargaining. This enabled wages to rise during an era of economic growth so that domestic consumption was facilitated and living standards were raised. In macro-economic terms those policies were attributed to the British economist John Maynard Keynes who had advocated policies of macro-economic expansion before the war . Fordism should always be mentioned together with its macro-economic counter-part Keynesianism.

Aglietta, Michel. 1979. A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience. London: NLB.

Capital Logic School

There was, however, a leftwing school of Marxist economists who always held that Keynesianism was only buying time towards the inevitable collapse of the capitalist economy. Keynes, while espousing 'the best of English liberalism', something that even his opponents would admit, and although Keynesian policies eventually led to a better life for workers, was still a form of culturally liberal capitalism, not socialism (or even communism). It did not change the basic problems of alienation in the working process and of exploitation of workers through the extraction of surplus value. As Paul Mattick explained - as a rather lonely voice at the height of the postwar boom - this could only work for a limited period.

Mattick, Paul. 1969. Marx and Keynes: The Limits of the Mixed Economy. Boston: P. Sargent.

Military Keynesianism

Ernest Mandel explained, why the high level of state expenditure for military reasons during the era of the Cold War constituted a 'military Keynesianism' or 'permanent war economy'. In the case of the US, already high levels of expenditure were driven to further extremes through the Vietnam War, which, in the long run, would cause trouble for the dollar and the US-led Western hegemony and world economy.

Mandel, Ernest. 1978. “The Permanent Arms Economy and Late Capitalism.” In Late Capitalism, 274–310. London: Verso.

The Crisis of Fordism

The crisis of Fordism, for which you can find a wealth of literature, is quite well explained in this work by Rober Brenner (although it becomes less convincing when he approaches the current era):

Brenner, Robert. 2002. The Boom and the Bubble: The US in the World Economy. 1st ed. London: Verso.

The most cogent analysis, however, with the most direct consequences spelled out as a call to political action, comes from Toni Negri in

Negri, Antonio. 1988. Revolution Retrieved: Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis and New Social Subjects. Left Bank Books.
(in particular chapters 1, 2 and 3)

Negri's writing owes a lot to the re-discovery of the Marx of Grundrisse:

Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse : Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (rough Draft). London; New York: Penguin Books.

There are two different patterns at work during the early 1970s which have the same result: the exodus of the working class from the factory. On one hand it is the dissatisfaction of large parts of the population - and not just students - with the cultural conformism enforced by the Fordist era, so that workers, or more precisely, their grown up children, revolt against the factory system or simply develop other life-choices after 1968. And secondly, capital, because it encounters those reactions, starts to change the mode of production. It accelerates automation, the worker-less factory in the West, and it re-distributes production to different geographic eras. Both tendencies start, while having began earlier, in serious during the 1970s. The result was high unemployment and high inflation in particular in the USA which until then had been far in advance of any other nation in economic development. Keynesian measures of redistribution from the top, organised by the state and financed through stated debt, brought fewer and fewer returns. The critique of Keynesianism from the neoliberal right - Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman - got more and more attention , until in the late 1970s the conservatives won elections in the USA and UK, ushering in the age of Thatcher-Reaganism or simply


Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Applications of the Techno-political Framework

We understand technopolitics as a framework, not a goal in its own right. Therefore we take the liberty to use an eclectic mix of economic and political theories. Our goal is to provide foundations for a correct cultural critique. In our view, the rise of neoliberalism has also given rise to an over-boarding culturalism in many fields of study. The base simply has gone a miss. We are not making a simplistic base-superstructure argument. However, if we want our voice to carry meaning and to have any impact in the world, we need to understand our age and the 'laws of development'. Those 'laws' might not have the regularity of the laws of natural science, but our proposition is based on the firm belief that it is possible to understand history as an 'open totality' and that to aim at such a more holistic viewpoint is beneficial to artistic and cultural discourses. The question or problem that poses itself is how such a theoretic framework as presented here can be related to cultural theory. Harvey's Condition of Postmodernity gives a beautiful example how those discourses can be linked. We are challenged with coming up with something similarly convincing.

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Another great inspiration is the work of Karl Polanyi who developed the concept of the 'embedded' economy. According to Polanyi, an economy that is disembedded, i.e. rises above other social fields such as religion and politics, is a dangerous anomaly. His book The Great Transformation, although inspired by Marx in many ways, is a non-Marxist alternative to a grand narrative on history. The rise of neoliberalism has given this work added significance.

Polanyi, Karl. 2012. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

This is just a very basic selection in order to keep the list short. The classics are always worth a read, especially Karl Marx, Capital Vol I-III in whichever language or edition you like. There is also another strand of theory which I have left out which relates to labour and technology and which is quite essential for technopolitics. I hope to be able to make such a list at a later stage.

  • 1. Freeman, Christopher, and Luc Soete. 1997. The Economics of Industrial Innovation. 3rd revised. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.
  • 2. Perez, Carlota. 2002. Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing
  • 3. Perez, Carlota. 2009. “Technological Revolutions and Techno-Economic Paradigms.” Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics (20).
  • 4. Goldstein, Joshua S. 1988. Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.